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26 August 2016

The E word: should we scrap the term 'evangelical'?

The E word: should we scrap the term 'evangelical'?

Some people are evangelical about recycling; some about the political party of which they are a member. Some are evangelical about cycling, while others describe themselves as evangelists for the 5:2 diet. In all of these contexts, being evangelical about something describes being passionate about it; using every opportunity you can to speak of this thing that you're enthusiastic about. People who are evangelical about something are convinced that that thing is something that everyone else should be evangelical about too.

So why is it that when evangelical Christianity is spoken about in wider society – or in the pages of the Guardian – the term takes on negative connotations? Before looking at the external factors, it's important that we as the evangelical Church recognise why we might have brought this on ourselves; so often we critique culture and stand in judgment over others without making clear the alternative narrative by which we aim to live our lives.

But on top of this, there are other reasons. To the religiously illiterate, including unfortunately many people in the Church, evangelicalism is reduced to the right-wing Republican arm of American politics, or simply a sect of Christianity that is 'anti' things rather than for the radical transformation of the whole of society through Jesus's saving work on the cross and the anticipation of his kingdom coming on earth.

In 2014, we conducted a survey among people in their 20s and 30s who are part of our threads collective. We were disappointed, but not surprised, to find that 32 per cent of people consider themselves to be evangelical Christians, but would never use the word 'evangelical' when describing themselves – another 37 per cent of these self-defined evangelical millennials said they might occasionally use the 'evangelical' label. 

One respondent commented: "The word frightens off non-Christians. People who don't know what evangelical means often assume it's something to do with TV evangelists who ask for money." Another simply said: "The term makes me cringe a bit. I think it's quite cheesy."

The evangelical revivals of the 18th century saw a shaking of the "dead orthodoxy" of Protestant churches that had become stale. According to The Evangelical Revival & The Oxford Movement by Rev T.C. Hammond, these evangelicals – spiritual reformists – were labelled disparagingly as "enthusiasts". Their passion was markedly different from the "measured calm" of those concerned by the "dispassionate disputants" who were disturbed by the extravagance the evangelicals displayed.

Rev Hammond writes, "[Evangelicalism] brought to a word-weary people a new motive power. It received the truly practical which had been largely discarded as speculative. It spoke again of sin, redemption, regeneration, justification and sanctification. But it spoke of these things as realities in personal experience… Revelation, despite the disadvantage that it did not happen to be written on the sky, gripped the imaginations of men. God spoke to souls. Redemption clothed itself in the garments of the actual suffering of the Son of God on behalf of actual sinners, the actual sinners listening to the message. Regeneration became a positive work of the Holy Ghost experienced in the daily lives of multitudes. Justification was the actual acceptance for Christ's sake of an individual, concrete sinner in this or that village."

In more recent history, many of us have heard of David Bebbington's four-point description of the qualities that define evangelicalism; that is, biblicism – a particular regard for the Bible, crucientism – a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross, conversionism – the belief that human beings need to be converted, and activism – the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort. 

In an increasingly religiously illiterate world, we might ask the question whether we should ditch the word 'evangelical', which we have proudly held in our organisation's title for the past 170 years. In 2016, is the term totally meaningless? Especially when you consider the depressing statistic we found in our Talking Jesus research with the Church of England and HOPE, which revealed that 40 per cent of people in the UK don't think Jesus was a real person who actually lived. If such a significant percentage of people think Jesus was a fictional character, how can we begin to convey to them the complicated theology of evangelicalism?

But to ditch the word 'evangelical' would strip out the heart of why we exist as an organisation. Instead, we must reclaim it. One of my big dreams as director of communications at the Alliance is that one day the term 'evangelical Christian' might automatically conjure up an image of 'good news people'. Not for our own glory, but for the glory of the God we're so enthusiastic about.

Evangelicals must be committed to a living, active faith that has implications for every person and every society; our passion must be for the euangelion – the good news we have, the message that says 'there is more than this'. The truth evangelicals live with is of life, and life in all its fullness. It's why we're so passionate about it – we believe the best thing we can do for our friends, our families, our neighbours and our world, is to introduce them to Jesus. We are the enthusiasts. 

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