Long ago, I asked the Rev. Billy Graham a question that I really thought he, of all people, would be able to answer.
The question: What does the word “evangelical” mean?
As I have reported several times, the world’s most famous evangelist tossed the question right back at me:
“Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too,” he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, N.C. This oft-abused term has “become blurred. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.”
Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn’t know what “evangelical” means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man’s “evangelical” is another’s “fundamentalist.”
So, a few months ago, I asked the Rev. Rick Warren — one of today’s most high-profile evangelicals — the same question. And his response?
“I know what the word ‘evangelical’ is supposed to mean,” said Warren, 58, leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., with its many branch congregations and ministries. “I mean, I know what the word ‘evangelical’ used to mean.”
The problem, he said, is that many Americans no longer link “evangelical” with a set of traditional doctrines, such as evangelistic efforts to reach the lost, the defense of biblical authority, projects to help the needy and the conviction that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone.
Somewhere during the George W. Bush years the word “evangelical” — a term used in church history — got “co-opted into being a political term,” said Warren. …
Needless to say, this is an issue that has been discussed many times here at GetReligion, where we continue to argue that — damn the postmodernism, full speed ahead — journalists should attempt to use words precisely. On the religion beat, words with links to history and doctrine really matter. Words have meanings.
So, how are journalists supposed to know what “evangelical” means, since it is almost impossible to avoid using it these days?
This is a battle and, lucky for us, the other day someone asked this question to Godbeat patriarch Richard Ostling, over at his weblog, Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy Answers your Questions.”
PAUL IN VIRGINIA ASKS: Many people refer to themselves as “Evangelical Christians” to distinguish them from others. What is The Guy’s definition?
After dealing with several short answers, at the national and international levels, Ostling offers these comments based on his own experience and reporting:
1) Yes, a personalized, conscious commitment to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord is central, though this doesn’t necessarily involve a specific “born again” or conversion experience, particularly for those raised Christian.
2) Yes, the Bible is God’s Word and the sole source of authority, interpreted as literally as contexts allow, and trusted as reliable or “infallible” — and for some, historically “inerrant.”
3) In addition, since Evangelicals cherish the “evangel” (Greek for “good news,” referring to the Christian message) they’re notably “evangelistic” or missionary-minded in spreading it at home and abroad.
4) It’s important to add their commitment to classical Christian doctrines and morals, based upon the Bible.
Ah, but there are complications:
… (Some) Evangelicals shun doctrinal statements and favor “the Bible only” or “no creed but Christ.” Some groups with an evangelical flavor are not evangelical in theology, for instance “Oneness” Pentecostalists who reject the orthodox doctrine of Christ. So do Jehovah’s Witnesses, yet journalists sometimes mislabel them “Fundamentalists” because they’re literalistic on the Bible, and evangelistic.
Go ahead, read it all. There are, after all, true evangelicals in liberal mainline churches. And there are African-American churches that are very evangelical in theology, yet rarely gather under the “evangelical” umbrella in the public square.
Etc., etc. Be careful out there.