What is an Evangelical?

What is an Evangelical? February 16, 2012

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?

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