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Make Evangelicalism Great Again

What we talk about when we talk about evangelical

Published on:
November 7, 2016
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4 min.
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A few years ago, when I was a college student, I was in the library when one of my friends—an international student from Kenya—came and sat down at my table. He looked at me and without even smiling or saying hi, and asked me, “What is an evangelical?” 

Easy answer. I had been one for my entire life. This question was simpler than asking me to breathe. It was so innate, so obvious. 

After about five minutes of dancing around the questions and trying to define it, I realized I had no idea what it was. I also realized that sometimes the most innate, obvious things are often the hardest to define.[1] Evangelicalism was that to me. I realized that day that I had no idea what it was, how to define it, where it came from, or anything about it except that I was one. 

Sometimes the most innate, obvious things are often the hardest to define.
Jonathan Minnema

I find that this trend is true for a large number of evangelicals today. Christians simply assume that they know what evangelicalism is without actually understanding it—especially if you were raised in it. Let’s remedy that. Let’s make evangelicalism great again by first getting to know what exactly evangelicalism is.

Defining Evangelicalism

The first thing you ought to know about evangelicalism is what it actually means. This isn’t that hard of a question as the word evangelism is in the word itself. One of the most important things about evangelicals is that they prize evangelism. The word comes from the Greek language and literally means “good news” or “gospel.” So, we emphasize the spreading of the gospel.

The second thing that you should know about evangelicalism is that it’s transdenominational. What this means is that anyone from any denomination can be evangelical. There is such a thing as Catholic evangelicals and evangelical Methodists. Even within Eastern Orthodoxy you can be evangelical. It is almost like a filter you can put on a camera instead of the camera itself. I learned this the hard way when one of my Anglican friends got on my case that I called myself evangelical and her Anglican.

The History of Evangelicalism

Jonathan Edwards

The history of evangelicalism is a bit harder to nail down though. Most would say that it came as a result of the First and Second Great Awakenings in America—the second was led by our most prized theologian, Jonathan Edwards. These awakenings were simply revivals that happened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries all around the country that gave people a renewed vigor for evangelism and the church. Most would say that evangelicalism took root at that time and was the initial starting point for the movement that would span denominations and generations and grow like Cubs fans in October.

But this probably wasn’t the actual start of evangelicalism. Evangelicals had been popping up all over the place—they just weren’t calling themselves evangelical yet. Essentially, anyone who would stress the fundamental teachings of Christianity could be labeled an evangelical.[2] I would say the early church was pretty evangelical, seeing that they spread the gospel to the whole known world. Other groups like the Moravians, Puritans, and Pietists were also evangelical before evangelicalism became a thing, kind of like being hipster before it was cool to be hipster.

The Beliefs of Evangelicalism

Now, you are what you believe, and evangelicals are no different. Their identity is in what they believe. And evangelicals have a core set of doctrines that differentiate them from a number of others who would not consider themselves evangelical. While we fall in line with the other major doctrines that the church teaches, like the Trinity and the hypostatic union (that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man), we also emphasize things that many other churches might not.

The first emphasis is a belief in a personal experience with Jesus. Most call this being born again. It is a huge emphasis of evangelicalism, and many would say you are not even a Christian if you have not had a personal conversion experience (which might be taking it too far).

Another huge belief is in salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We believe that there is no way to God except by the grace of Jesus Christ. And that grace in Jesus Christ is only accessible in our faith in Jesus Christ. And that faith is only made possible, again, by the grace of Jesus Christ.

Another core tenet of evangelicals is a belief in the Bible as inerrant and inspired. All this means is that we prize it above all other books and believe that, in its original form, it was both without error and inspired by God.

The fourth and final essential teaching of evangelicalism is in evangelism. This is perhaps the greatest strength and stress of evangelicalism. We evangelize. We tell the whole world about the Gospel of Jesus Christ—or at the very least we try to.

Floral Series of ink drawings by Mandy Busby
Photo by Ashely Scarbrough

The Absolute Core of Evangelicalism

All this can help you understand evangelicalism a bit more, but I do want to put one footnote on this whole thing. There is a difference between being an evangelical and being a fundamentalist. Evangelicals are fundamentalists only in the sense that they believe in the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith as the most important and the ones the church ought to emphasize. Evangelicals are not fundamentalists in that we are not like the Amish or bigots or homophobes or Bible-thumping Trump supporters who predict the demise of America will come as a result of homosexuality mixed with witchcraft and atheism.[3]

We stress the gospel. And the gospel is about the good news of Jesus’ love for the world.
Jonathan Minnema

While we have our disagreements, what makes a true evangelical an evangelical is their ability to love as Jesus Christ loved. Our history is important, our doctrine is vital, but the heart of the body of evangelicalism is love. Some evangelicals have tainted this and some even ruin the entire word for many Christians. Plenty of my friends hate the word evangelical as much as they hate the people because they have been hurt by people proclaiming to be evangelical. 

But we stress the gospel. And the gospel is about the good news of Jesus’ love for the world. Therefore the one thing evangelical Christians should be known for is their love and their zeal for the whole world to experience the love of Jesus that they themselves experience. 

In the coming weeks I am going to keep this column up and bring about some different discussions of what evangelicals are good at and what they need to work on as well. Stay tuned for that.

[1] David Foster Wallace says it like this: “Sometimes the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”

[2] Do not mistake this with fundamentalism, which is something a bit different.

[3] There are some evangelicals who believe this, but they would be better defined as fundamentalists rather than evangelicals.

Jonathan Minnema
Jonathan is the video producer for Fathom Magazine. You can reach him at jon@fathommag.com and @jonminnema.

Cover image by William Bout.

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