What does “evangelical” mean?

James Hassell   -  

You have likely heard the word “evangelical” at some point in your life. The term, used more frequently these days to describe a political voting bloc, has become somewhat nebulous and even misunderstood in recent decades. For instance, the Pew Research Center released data in 2018 describing five key characteristics of evangelicals in the United States (See the article here: Following Rev. Billy Graham’s death, 5 facts about U.S. evangelical Protestants | Pew Research Center). The data essentially asserts that evangelicals make up a quarter of the US adult population and are predominantly comprised of less educated white people who live in the South. Although the Pew data is descriptive, the research never really defines evangelicalism. In a nutshell, the people who did this research came to widely broad conclusions based on their assumptions, or biases about evangelicalism.

Contrary to the Pew Research Center, I’ve found that there is much more to evangelicalism and evangelicals than the biased research indicates. For example, I’ve met many people from varied and diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, levels of education, and political proclivities—all of whom would say that they are “evangelicals.” So, what (or more importantly—who) then is an “evangelical?”

In the broadest sense of the term, an evangelical is a Christ-follower who believes and acts out evangelical theology. Evangelical theology is reflection on God and beliefs about God that results in right belief and right actions concerning the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Simply put, evangelicals desire to be evangelistic! We want to conform to Christ and base our lives on preaching the gospel to the nations.

The beliefs and actions of evangelicals over the past centuries have resulted in four common denominators, or characteristics. These characteristics were first described by a Christian historian at Baylor University named David Bebbington and are more helpful than the Pew Research statistics and other media for defining exactly what evangelicalism is and how it works. Here are the characteristics:

First, evangelicals are characterized by something called “conversionism.” This is the biblically based belief that all Christians are called to witness of our faith in Christ to as people in the world to whom we can get. Conversionism also asserts that people are saved by God’s grace through faith and not of works. In other words, evangelicals believe in salvation by grace alone. No human authority or church denomination can mediate, or produce, salvation for you. Conversion to Christ comes by repentance and faith in Jesus alone for salvation.

Second, evangelicals are characterized by “biblicism.” This is the belief that the Bible is the absolutely God-inspired and trustworthy written record of God’s revelation. The Bible therefore is completely truthful and useful for all matters pertaining to our life and faith.

Third, evangelicals are characterized by “crucicentrism.” That’s a fancy word that simply means “cross-centered.” In other words, evangelicals place a high regard on the saving work of Christ on the cross. We value the cross of Christ not just as a some sort of religious symbol but as the place where Christ bled and died for our sins. This is central to our gospel message. We also take quite seriously Jesus’ command for us to take up our cross daily and follow him.

Fourth, evangelicals are characterized by “activism.” Activism does not necessarily refer here to political or social activism in the popular senses of those terms. Evangelical activism refers more to the efforts we express in putting the gospel into action. Evangelicals agree with the Apostle James that “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). A great Texas Baptist pastor named Paul Powell said it best when it comes to activism: “Get out of your seat, on your feet, and out into the streets!” We are to actively serve, call attention to Christ, and herald the gospel message in all that we say and do.

I want to encourage you today about being an evangelical. Don’t let others box you in based on their assumptions and stereotypes. In fact, the best way to overcome misinformation about evangelicalism is to preach the good news and walk as Jesus walked (1 John 2:6). When we remain faithful to the Great Commission, others will see just how diverse and big the evangelical tent really is and can be. The lyrics of the great old hymn sum up this subject very well: “There is room at the cross for you.”