Do You Call Yourself an Evangelical?
Four EFCA leaders wrestle with the term
In mid-September, at the annual Missional Summit—a gathering of leaders from all across the EFCA—four leaders with diverse perspectives shared with attendees about how they interpret the term “evangelical.”
Drawing from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel,” the word “evangelical” today has taken on many negative connotations, especially in the current social and political climate. So, how do we, as people of the Evangelical Free Church of America, reckon with the term? Hear from these leaders and share with us how you or your church understand what it means to be evangelical.
Don’t change the term; change the narrative
Dr. Kenneth Young
We’re not going to drop the term “evangelical.” The reality is that it really wouldn’t make any difference whether we dropped the term or not.
But there is a danger that those who reject the term because of its social implications will also reject the theology associated with it. There are some people who might be at risk if we maintain this rigid posture around the term “evangelical,” and the gospel itself may be at risk. Of course, Paul challenged Peter on that in Galatians 2. Some folk are at risk and the gospel itself may be at risk.
The question we must ask ourselves is: Are we putting the term “evangelical” ahead of people and ahead of the gospel? What sin would you call that? Idolatry.
Again, I’m not suggesting that we change the term, but we must consider what is at risk when we hold so tightly to a word that could do serious damage to the body of Christ. I want to reference a passage of Scripture that you all know:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)
We don’t have to drop the term “evangelical,” but there is another option, which is laid out here in the text. The believers in Acts weren’t going door to door and sharing the Four Spiritual Laws. No, they were living as brothers and sisters in Christ, and Christ was drawing people into the body. In other words, people were looking at what was happening in the community of believers and they were drawn to it: The way these people are living? That’s something I want.
My suggestion is that we don’t have to change the term, but we do have to change the narrative. We need to change, by our actions and by the way that we live, what “evangelical” means in the minds of the people we would like to reach. We need to live such amazing, God-fearing lives together and have such amazing relationships to the communities we say we want to reach that the term doesn’t mean anything anymore. We can override the connotations of “evangelical” by the way that we live.
Dr. Young is the J. Edwin Hartill Endowed Professor of systematic theology at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is ordained in the EFCA and has served with two different EFCA congregations and on two district boards.
Do you know me now?
The Christmas before last, my husband, Jim, and I gave each other the gift of the ancestry.com DNA test. Jim’s results came back promptly, showing that he is 67 percent Scandinavian and 14 percent Irish. My results, however, took months and months.
But long before my ancestry.com results came in, I knew who I was. I am a German Jew, with a dash of Canadian and English blood as well. I am an ESTJ in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. In StrengthsFinder, I am a strategic activator with positivity, connectedness and individualization. In the enneagram, I’m an 8. My spiritual gifts are wisdom, intercession and administration. My color season is winter. I am a New York Yankees fan. And I am an evangelical.
Do you know me now? No. Of course not. Some of those labels may actually keep you from knowing me because you may think you know what they mean. As soon as we label others, as soon as we judge or categorize or put people into boxes, we think we know things about them.
My genetic makeup is true and my spiritual personality traits are true, but these things only tell you part of my story. Likewise, when it comes to the label of “evangelical,” we may be missing a crucial part of our shared story.
In the EFCA, many churches today are not using the term “evangelical.” There’s Crossroads, Crosspoint, Cornerstone and so forth. (There’s a church in Colorado called Scum of the Earth Church. It’s not a Free Church, but I think we should claim it. I would so fit in there.) Few are identifying themselves openly as “evangelical.”
When we think about this term and the reasons why we might be avoiding it, I think of something I heard Dr. Tony Evans say years ago. He said, “Please don’t use the term ‘Christian’ as an adjective. Don’t call me a Christian man. Don’t call me a Christian black man, where ‘man’ is the central part of the term and ‘black’ and ‘Christian’ are the modifiers.” He said, “Make ‘Christian’ the noun.”
To take his point, are we using ‘evangelical’ as a noun? As in, we are evangelicals. Or are we using it as an adjective, implying that we are a consortium, a group of evangelical churches that want to live evangelically?
Today, “evangelical” has become synonymous with “hater.” If only it was hating sin that we were known for! It’s not. We’re known for hating those in the LGBTQ community, hating non-whites, hating women, hating Democrats or liberals, hating illegal immigrants, hating entire countries or cultures.
I think it may be too late to try to redeem the word “evangelical,” but I am so interested in living that word. I’m so interested in being known as a Jesus follower, to be known for what we’re for instead of what we’re against. There’s a big difference between not being a hater and actually being a lover, isn’t there?
Jenni Key serves on the EFCA Board of Directors and as the director of women’s ministries and prayer at EvFree Fullerton (EFCA) in Fullerton, California.
Stewards of this good news
I’m an evangelical, and I use that term because of the story behind the name. I think about the good, powerful story that brought hope and transformation to my life. It’s the same story that I share with others. It’s the story that offers restoration and reconciliation to those who hear it. We’re evangelicals because we are a movement that has sought the presence, anointing and power of the triune God.
But what does it really mean to be an evangelical? When I think of the essence of the word, I think of Paul establishing the church in Ephesus, and I jump back to Acts 19. What did Paul encounter there? He found disciples who said that they’d received John’s baptism. For some of us, we could think that we received the baptism of Luther or Calvin. But how did Paul respond to them? “Paul said, ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:4-5).
Paul wrote to them about the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the heart of what it means to me to be an evangelical. The gospel restores people. And there is a lot of restoration that needs to happen today. As evangelicals, although our name carries some baggage, we are called to be gardens in the desert (Isaiah 58:11). If we return to the Lord and make His Name the center of our story, can you imagine how different our ministries would look? Instead of declining, they would be thriving.
In the past few months, my doctor told me, “Hey, you can experience sudden death.” Well, OK. Praise the Lord. What else is new? We are called to be faithful about proclaiming this message and sharing this story, wherever we are and in whatever time we have left. The story of the gospel has the power to regenerate and refresh us. We must be committed and willing to sacrifice everything, because none of it is ours to begin with. We are just stewards of this good news. And so, as evangelicals, if we shy away from the conflict, pressure and rejection of the world today, what will our legacy be? As an evangelical, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
Pablo Cachon serves on the EFCA Board of Directors and as the pastor of Latino ministries at New Hope Church (EFCA) in New Hope, Minnesota.
The only Name that matters
What does it mean to be evangelical when you’re a young, urban church?
A decade ago, I helped plant the church that I now pastor in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in an area of the city that is unique, diverse and constantly changing. There is a rich culture of food, art and summer festivals. And like many urban areas, we are in a progressive part of town. It’s common to see rainbow flags on front porches or signs promoting liberal positions and politicians in our neighbors’ yards. Anti-Trump protests happen regularly right around the corner from our church.
This is the environment where our ministry is taking place. So how do we reckon with the term “evangelical” and with all of the negative connotations it carries today? A simple answer I’d give is that we are protestant at the front door and evangelical around the table.
What does this mean? We’re protestant at the front door because there is a long history of Catholicism in Saint Paul. People are open to religious expression, tradition and Christian communities. When we decided to name our church, I called on my unchurched friends for their opinions. They didn’t like all of the hip names that were popular for churches at the time; they didn’t like “warehouse” or “vintage” or the “woodshed.” They didn’t trust those names, because if they wanted to explore the Christian faith, going to the “woodshed” didn’t sound like a safe place to be. They wanted names that were rooted in Christian tradition. And so we named our church Trinity City Church.
Some people ask me, “Are you a liberal or conservative church?” My answer is that we’re both. We believe that the Trinity has deep historical and theological roots. We don’t have any theological surprises here. We affirm the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, and in that sense, I guess we’re conservative. But we’re also a city church that changes with the city, so in that sense, I guess we’re liberal.
We didn’t include the words “Evangelical” and “Free” in the name of our church. “Evangelical” comes with so many stereotypes. Even 10 years ago, for many in my city, “evangelical” meant a voting bloc rather than a people with a particular theological heritage. The current political climate has only heightened this assumption. So we don’t lead with the word “evangelical.” Our website says that we belong to a protestant denomination and if someone wants to have a conversation about it, we go deeper.
When I go deeper, I say that we’re part of the Free Church, a movement started by Scandinavian immigrants who were breaking free from the state-run Lutheran church. Typically, in my setting in Saint Paul, this reference to Scandinavians and Luther opens up the conversation more than the word “evangelical” would. But we’re honest and up front about it if people ask. I’m not ashamed of our evangelical heritage, but there are things we need to learn from and repent of in our history. To me, I define “evangelical” as people who believe in the five “Solas” and in the priesthood of all believers. American evangelicals can be known by their belief in the authority of Scripture, the centrality of the cross, the necessity of conversion and the expression of faith through activism.
Ultimately, we make a distinction between big-E Evangelicalism and little-e evangelicalism, drawing from Timothy Keller in his 2017 piece in the New Yorker. Big-E Evangelicals self-identify as evangelical but share few of the central theological beliefs that have united evangelicals throughout history. Big-E Evangelicalism has become a default identity that looks more like a civil religion or a political or nationalistic identity rather than a theological heritage.
In contrast, we’re little-e evangelicals: people united in the historical, confessional, multiethnic and global movement of the gospel of Jesus Christ, with no political allegiance or political identity. This is what we hold fast to. We are faithful to the Lord’s commission and lift high the Name that is above every name. I don’t know what we’ll call ourselves in the future, as a movement of enduring saints, but I know that the name we will continue to confess is that of Jesus Christ—and that is the only Name that matters.
Bryan Lair serves as the pastor of Trinity City Church (EFCA) in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Do you describe yourself as evangelical? Why or why not? How do you define or explain the term when someone asks you what it means? Share your thoughts in the comments.