What is an evangelical? That question brings more people to the website of the National Association of Evangelicals than any other search. It’s not just those outside the community looking for answers. Evangelicals themselves seek to understand and communicate what “evangelical” really means — and some are wondering whether it still speaks to who they are.
The question is not new. When asked what “evangelical” meant in a 1987 interview, Billy Graham — arguably the most prominent evangelical preacher in modern history — answered, “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too.”
Evangelicalism doesn’t have a pope. It is a vibrant and diverse group of “good news” people, including believers found in many churches, denominations and nations. Evangelicalism brings together Reformed, Holiness, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic and other traditions — all of whom believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and take the Bible seriously.
Not having a singular authority in the movement has spurred creativity, innovative evangelism tools, different expressions of worship, biblical scholarship and more, but it has also led to some confusion. When researchers started becoming interested in studying “born again” Christians, they used varying definitions to identify these Christians. Some equated evangelicals or “born again” Christians with politics or race — neither of which was helpful.
In this issue of Evangelicals magazine, we consider the biblical roots of “evangelical,” the history and use of the term, and how evangelicals have been defined in research. We look back, because it helps us understand and communicate who evangelicals are to people who want to know. We also remember that evangelicals are not all about U.S. politics and that there are many more evangelicals outside the United States than in it.
Some who hold evangelical beliefs may distance themselves from the name due to cultural misunderstanding and confusion. Others may find that the term provides an opportunity to explain what “evangelical” means and to share the good news with others. How people choose to identify themselves or their organizations is not the important thing. What is important is believing in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and taking the Bible seriously.