Since we’re discussing evangelicalism, it might be useful to answer the question, “What does it mean to be evangelical?”
While the term has a limited range of application, referring to specific traits, churches, convictions, and practices within Christianity, its denotation is so plastic that it makes it is almost impossible to succinctly define. Instead of shoehorning the word into an overly narrow definition, I’ll try to outline the central themes and relationships that help convey the connotations and senses in which the term is often used:
The term originates in the Greek word evangelion, meaning “the good news,” or, more commonly, the “gospel.” In the New Testament, the word is used in reference to the “good news” of the victory of God’s salvation.
A Very Brief History
Martin Luther picked up the term during the Reformation and used in to refer to the evangelische kirke, or “evangelical church.” This name is still used in Germany to refer to the Lutheran Church.
In Great Britain and North America, though, the term is used to refer to the Protestant religious movements and subsequent denominations which sprung up after a series of revivals swept through these countries during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Evangelicalism is often associated with the leaders of these revivals which including the American philosopher and theologian, Jonathan Edwards, the English evangelist George Whitefield, and the Wesley brothers, Charles and John, the founder of Methodism.
The term evangelical is generally applied in three different senses:
The first meaning of evangelical, based on a useful summary by historian David Bebbington, is an emphasis on four primary characteristics:
Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus.
Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts.
Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.
The second sense in which the term is used is as the generic name for a group of movements and religious traditions that incorporate the four emphases mentioned above. Within this context evangelical includes such disparate groups as Pentecostals, Baptists, Dutch Calvinists, and members of non-denominational megachurches.
The third sense of the term is as the self-ascribed label for a coalition that arose during the Second World War a reaction against the perceived anti-intellectual separatist, belligerent nature of the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Originally dubbed “neo-evangelicalism”, this group included such leaders as Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry, such institutions as the Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, and such publications as Christianity Today.
Other Uses and Definitions:
Barna Research — We categorize an evangelical based upon their answers to nine questions about faith matters. Those included in this segment meet the criteria for being born again; say their faith is very important in their life today; believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believe that Satan exists; believe that the eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Thus, evangelicals are a subset of the born again population.
World Evangelical Alliance — An evangelical is a gospel man, a gospel woman. “Evangelical” derives from ‘evangel’: “gospel”. By definition an evangelical is someone concerned for the gospel. This means more than that he preaches the gospel now and then. It means that for him the gospel of Christ is central. It is, of course, his message and he preaches it, constantly. But it is more than a subject of preaching. The gospel is at the centre of his thinking and living.