Define “evangelical”

time evangelicalsI was not alone in enjoying David Gonazalez’s first piece on a Pentecostal storefront church in New York City. Although I do note that our posts always receive many more comments when we criticize something than when we praise something. Why is that? I also must note with regret that I haven’t yet read the subsequent installments.

Anyway, a few readers pointed out that a graphic that accompanied the first installment of the story was corrected on Monday by The New York Times. The correction appears on the first page of the online story:

A graphic about the growth of Pentecostalism that accompanied an article yesterday about a storefront church in Harlem referred imprecisely to the beliefs of evangelicals. Some evangelicals believe in the literal truth of the Bible; not all do.

Ah, defining evangelicals. Not the easiest task. Terry wrote about that in a post-2004 election column. He pointed out that Billy Graham himself told him that “evangelical” could not be defined:

The Associated Press Stylebook notes that “evangelical” once served as an adjective. Today it is a noun, referring to a “category of doctrinally conservative Christians. They emphasize the need for a definite, adult commitment or conversion to faith in Christ. Evangelicals stress both doctrinal absolutes and vigorous efforts to win others to belief.”

The problem is trying to agree on the “doctrinal absolutes” that define evangelicals.

The problem the Times had with its graphic dealt with Biblicism. The original graphic — which used Todd Johnson from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, John Green from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and Tony Carnes from the International Research Institute on Values Changes as sources — defined evangelicals as

Protestants who believe that the Bible is literally true, that salvation requires a “born again” conversion, and that one must share that faith with others. Some belong to established groups like Methodist and Baptist churches.

The new graphic omits the first phrase, beginning now with the “born again” clause. One reader who passed along the correction wrote:

But it seems to me that biblicism — though you might want to phrase the definition without the word “literal” — is at least as important to evangelicals as conversionism and evangelism. Anyone else think the Times correction is now more misleading than the infographic might have been originally?

The fact is that the word is tricky to define. Which do you think is better — the original or the new graphic? If you were an editor, how would you change it to improve it?

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  • evagrius

    How do evangelicals define themselves?

  • Mollie

    Please stay on topic. I have had to delete two comments from someone who is not staying on topic.

  • Liz B.

    There has to be a middle ground that doesn’t use the word “literally” (which is inaccurate in its technical sense, I think most of us would agree)… but anything I can think of is too subtle to be informative to people who don’t already know what evangelical means.

    Wikipedia currently says that “evangelicalism is typified by an emphasis on evangelism, a personal experience of conversion, biblically oriented faith and a belief in the relevance of Christian faith to cultural issues”. I think I might like that better (substituting “sharing one’s faith with others” for “evangelism” to make it clearer).

  • Steve

    Since “Evangelicalism” doesn’t have a strong definition, both “liberals” and “conservatives” can claim to be “Evanglical”. When both Rev. Jim Wallis and Dr. James Dobson claim this word, the word becomes meaningless. There tends to be more a social/policitical nature to this world than an a theological nature anymore.

    I have noticed that most “Evangelicals” are ahistoric in their theology and trace their history to the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800′s. They stress personal experience over confessions/creeds. Both “liberal” and “conservative” view the political system as the means to obtain their respective views of a “moral” society. Both sides are also subject to the “new thing” that will change society to what they view as being better.

    I don’t beleive that most reporters, much less Christians, understand how empty this word is and how “American” it was become.

  • Jerry

    Although I do note that our posts always receive many more comments when we criticize something than when we praise something. Why is that?

    It is a commentary on humanity that we’re attracted to strife and disasters of all kinds. A very dear friend challenged some of us to look for positive news showing up in the media or online. It’s quite some challenge.

    One site that someone found is the Good News Network
    which, in a neat tie in with this topic, had a pointer to a story about Evangelicals and scientists working together on global warming.

  • Mollie

    I was kind of laughing over the fact that the first people to be called evangelicals were early Lutherans. And now they are considered very dissimilar.

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  • Mattk

    This might be simplistic but isn’t an evangelical someone who is a member of a church which is itself a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, or a member of a church which would be accepted as a member of the NAE if it applied?

    Their statement of faith is easy to find:

    It is narrow enough to keep my Church (Orthodox)out but broad enough to allow the non-baptizing Salvation Army in.

  • Raider51

    Steve writes,

    When both Rev. Jim Wallis and Dr. James Dobson claim this word, the word becomes meaningless.

    I (respectfully) disagree. I believe that “evangelical” is a term of art describing a set of religious beliefs, but not political ones. I admire both Dobson and Wallis and also get extremely frustrated with both. Both are driven to extremes (sometimes) in their rhetoric. Yet, both show that to be evangelical is to engage culture with a grounding in Scripture.

    On a somewhat of a tangent, there was an excellent article in the WaPo on Monday, which mentioned in passing,

    The evangelical private school boom probably would come as a surprise to the early members of the U.S. evangelical movement, which began in the 1940s to oppose Protestant fundamentalists who advocated removing themselves from the wider culture.

    Again, I think this is correct — one of the elements which sets “evangelical” apart from “Protestant fundamentalism” is its willingness to engage culture.

  • Mark V.


    I too am a fellow Orthodox. However, I find the NAE statement of faith so generalized and stripped down that it could even apply to the Orthodox Church. Perhaps this could lead to reporters’ confusion as discussed on this thread.

  • Trierr

    Just a quick historical note which I’m sure someone as learned as Mollie is aware of. The amorphous group we currently call “evangelicals” are referred to as neo-evangelicals in academic circles. This is to distinguish them from the 19th century progressive evangelicals who held some wildly different theological and political positions from contemporary evangelicals. The new-evangelical movement co-opted the name after WWII. The literalism issue is inherited by neo-evangelicals from their fundamentalist founders such as the immanent Carl Henry.

    Given that the “name” evangelical refers to at least three very different groups (Mollie’s 16th century Lutherans, 19th century progressives and the contemporary evangelicals), it’s no wonder that we can’t come up with a definition!

  • Eric W

    D. G. Hart, an “Evangelical,” argues in his book DECONSTRUCTING EVANGELICALISM that the term is meaningless.

    It’s worth a read for anyone who has to use or define the term “Evangelical” in their writing.

  • Marc V

    I didn’t find the NAE statement to be all that stripped down. It was interesting to not find any reference to baptism or repentance necessary prior to salvation. I would be curious to see how many churches disagree with some of the statements of the NAE. Would they still be considered Christian if they disagreed, or just not evangelical?

  • Diane Fitzsimmons

    I am an evangelical Christian, and I did write to reporter David Gonzalez to tell him how much I enjoyed his series.

    I also suggested, for future reference, that he consider the definition for evangelicalism that I find most useful, from the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (

    “There are three senses in which the term “evangelical” is used today as we enter the 21st-century. The first is to see as “evangelical” all Christians who affirm a few key doctrines and practical emphases. British historian David Bebbington approaches evangelicalism from this direction and notes four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. A second sense is to look at evangelicalism as an organic group of movements and religious tradition. Within this context “evangelical” denotes a style as much as a set of beliefs. As a result, groups as disparate as black Baptists and Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites and Pentecostals, Catholic charismatics and Southern Baptists all come under the evangelical umbrella-demonstrating just how diverse the movement really is. A third sense of the term is as the self-ascribed label for a coalition that arose during the Second World War. This group came into being as a reaction against the perceived anti-intellectual, separatist, belligerent nature of the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s.”

    I find this “family” of definitions enormously helpful in explaining my branch of Christianity to those outside evangelicalism.

  • evagrius

    I find the last definition by Ms. Fitzsimmons to be quite helpful.

    I’m curious about crucicentrism- does this also include the Resurrection, the triumph over death?

    A cliche that has some grounding points out the difference between “Eastern” and “Western” Christianity.

    The former points out the triumph over Death in the Resurrection while the latter points out the Death as Sacrifice, ( as…”justification”?)

    Perhaps this is a good distinction to mull over.

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  • Eric W

    The current issue of Christian History & Biography is devoted to “Evangelicals”:

    A New Evangelical Awakening

  • Scott Allen

    I agree with Steve. We can come up with all sorts of definitions from dictionaries, university web sites, and magazines, but as a practical matter we should

    “understand how empty this word is and how “American” it has become.”

    Posted by Steve at 12:00 am on January 17, 2007

  • Herb Brasher

    Scott, we have to live with it. If we don’t use “evangelical,” we’ll have to come up with another word. Labels may be frustrating, but you gotta give the kid a name. So we’d best try to help the press understand what it is, or at least what we mean by it.

  • A. Fuchs

    Tony Carnes claims to be the director of the “International Research Institute on Values Changes.” There is no such “Institute” that exists anywhere other than in his own mind.

    Go ahead. Search for it.