Read with a Spanish accent: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means

wrongword 01Bruce Tomaso at the Dallas Morning Newsfine religion blog highlights a horrible Reuters story that Christianity Today‘s Ted Olsen found.

The story appeared in The Boston Globe with this curious headline: “New evangelist leader plans to avoid politics.”

But the story is about the pastor-elect at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, not a new “evangelist leader.” Whatever that is. New Life Church is, of course, the megachurch that Ted Haggard built. Here’s how the story begins:

Nine months after influential US evangelist Ted Haggard was disgraced in a gay sex scandal, the man poised to take his place in the pulpit says he plans to steer clear of overt politics and focus on the Bible instead.

Ack, ack, ack! Evangelist? Or megachurch pastor and National Association of Evangelicals leader? Who is writing this copy and why is The Boston Globe publishing it?

So, Anonymous Reuters reporter, let’s go to the style guide. You’re also welcome to use a little writer’s tool I like to call the dictionary. It seems you need a lesson in the difference between evangelical and evangelist. And yes, we’re embarrassed for you.

An evangelist, according to The Associated Press Stylebook, is a preacher who makes a profession of seeking conversions. If you’re the pastor of thousands of people, by definition they’ve already been converted.

The word evangelical was used historically as an adjective to describe dedication to conveying the message of Christ. The stylebook explains that “today it is also used as 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 and the duty of all believers to persuade others to accept Christ.”

And the word evangelism refers to “activity directed outside the church fold to influence others to commit themselves to faith in Christ, to his work of serving others and to infuse his principles into society’s conduct.”

Confusing the fairly obvious terms evangelist and evangelical is a journalistic error based in complete and utter ignorance. But what, exactly, is the excuse for the bizarre statement at the end of the article?

American evangelical Christians, who number 60 million, believe that many of the country’s social ills stem from high divorce rates and teenage pregnancies.

What? So the anonymous reporter who doesn’t even understand what an evangelical is tells us how many there are in America and what they believe? And comes up with the notion that above all other things one might say about them, they believe the country’s social ills stem from the rates of divorce and teen pregnancy? Okay.

The only thing that’s even remotely interesting — although not newsworthy — about the sentence is what it shows reporters believe about evangelicals.

It’s not that Christians — be they evangelicals or not — aren’t concerned about divorce or teen pregnancy, but it’s just such a weird way to describe a group.

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  • Darren

    Actually, I’m not sure it’s based on total ignorance. I have seen numerous Christians, both conservative and liberal, on the internet who mix up the terms “evangelistic” and “evangelical.”

  • Andy

    Doesn’t that just make it more wide-spread ignorance, Darren?

  • zman

    Perhaps it’s the Style Guide that has the term misdefined. The phrasing didn’t really turn my head. Actually, there are several prominent American faith communities that use “evangelist” interchangeably with pastor. And they’re certainly preaching to the converted. There are even a few who purposefully avoid the title pastor completely for the minister – or “preaching minister” – and call him/her the evangelist. Instead, reserving the term pastor for elders, or church leaders, who aren’t even on the church payroll.

  • Jeff Porter


  • Dave Rattigan

    I think our definition of “evangelist” has to be broadened to include all evangelical preachers in some contexts. It may have started out as an error, but I think it is established enough now that we can say that while “evangelist” may be a technical term in an evangelical or theological context, in a mainstream context it is a legitimate and readily understood catch-all term for pastors, preachers etc.

  • Charles

    Yeah, like “televangelist” – the language’s utterly corrupt, and you’re splitting tangly natty matted hairs. presque aucune difference comme on dit.

  • Daryle

    believe that many of the country’s social ills stem from high divorce rates and teenage pregnancies.

    So, evangelicals believe that the country’s social ills stem from…the country’s social ills?

    Actually if you were to talk to an evangelical most would say that social ills, including those here listed as the root cause, actually stem from society’s wide spread rejection of the Bible.

  • Rick the Texan


    There are such bodies in the U.S. But to my knowledge, New Life Church is not one of them. I think Mollie’s accurate in identifying the issues here, and it has to do with simple inattention to accuracy in language.

  • zman

    Rick the Texan,

    Thanks for the clarification. In the context of the New Life Church that makes perfect sense and I don’t disagree that Mollie accurately identified the issues.

    My point was that the AP Style Book doesn’t exactly clear things up, using both the word preacher and the phrase “seeking conversions” in its definition of evangelist. Preacher is about as broad as it gets and it didn’t help any when I flipped over to preacher in the style book & all it said was it was a job title. The phrase “preaching to the converted” keeps popping into my mind now. For some preachers that’s their job; for others it is preaching to the unconverted.

    While the Reuters anonymous reporter doesn’t seem to have referred to the Style Book for this article, I’m not sure it would have helped if he/she had.