What is an Evangelical?

The “E Word” in Christianity is a funny thing. In one respect, Evangelicals are self-identified, and therefore, self-defined. On the other, popular culture (particularly media) lays its own meaning on what it means to be Evangelical. In the latter context, the word inevitably translates to “Conservative Christian.”

But I think this definition isn’t fair. What’s more, it’s not accurate.

I’m a self-proclaimed “word nerd,” so I tend to turn to etymology for help. The root meaning of “evangelical,” at least as a paraphrase, means “to tell the good news.”

Sufficiently vague, right? depends on who you ask.

The tendency is to assume that the good news we’re called to share is that Jesus died for our sins. The concept is clear, concise, and has taken hold as the standard identifier for evangelicalism.

But some Christians simply don’t agree with this concept, while others believe it’s the linchpin that determines whether or not you’re even a Christian. So I suppose by some people’s definition, all Christians would be evangelical. I suppose that, in so much as every Christian should have some type of good news that they feel compelled to share, I would agree.

But what is your good news? And how do you share it?

For those who embrace liberation theology, the salvific message of Christ is one of radical justice for the oppressed, freedom from bondage and hope that serves as sustenance for present suffering.

For others, the good news is that, one day, God’s love will be made complete, fully realized, not off in the distance but here on earth.

The good news can take the form of recovery from addiction, or a crack in the darkness of depression that lets in just enough light to change everything.

It can be a persistent message of unconditional, compassionate love that says, over and again, “you belong, you are loved,” regardless of who you love.

It can be the willing hand of service that touches your life in a moment of greatest need.

It can be a listening ear and an open heart, willing to bear part of the burden of your own pain.

It can be expressed in a spirit that refuses to be broken, despite the greatest efforts of violent oppressors.

For some, the shedding of divine blood is good news. For others, it is the indomitable love and forgiveness amid the bloodshed that sings to the heart of humanity’s brokenness.

On the one hand, evangelical good news may focus on individual salvation; on the other, there is no salvation until the collective suffering of all of God’s people is relieved.

It is the thing, the message inscribed by God’s spirit on our heart, that forever changes both us and how we see the world and others. It is embedded in the first word on our lips when we wake up, and nestled within the drowsy prayers of thanksgiving offered up before a night’s rest.

Whatever it is, it cannot be contained. It is bigger than we are. And at it’s heart, it is good. It is the goodness from which humanity emerged, which God proclaimed was our essence after being divinely inspired.

In that sense, we are the good news. And in sharing our lives, we share that good news.

So what was the question?

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Pastor Nancy

    I self-identify as a progressive evangelical, which always requires some explaining.

  • Steve DeFields-Gambrel

    A long time ago I was told that the basic definition of evangelical had to do with how one approached the inspiration of scripture. Fundamentalists believe scripture is inerrant and infallible, Evangelicals believe it is infallible but not inerrant, and liberals believe it is neither. None of which has anything to do with good news. 

  • Bishop Margo

    For me, the good news is every good thing I can share with those whose lives I touch every single day. That may be words of encouragement, uplifting thoughts, prayers and just a simple I love you and a hug. Or it can be that it is time for me to share the good news of Jesus and what He has done for us; or even just what He has done for me.

  • http://www.LifeAfterCaregiving.WordPress.com/ Linda Brendle

    I’ve never done a study on the word, but to me the focus of what it means to be an evangelical is on the word “tell,” and how you go about telling. The non-evangelical church leaves the telling to the pastor, and it’s done inside the walls of it’s building, available to those who would come in and hear. The evangelical church takes the message outside the building through missions, door-to-door proselytizing, relational evangelism, etc. I believe the term has come to be so closely associated with conservative Christians because of the heavy focus they put on telling outside the building. In my mind, defining the “Good News” to be told is a different subject. Either way, great post as always!


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