Six years ago, I wrote an article on why I am still an Evangelical. I admitted then that there were things about Evangelicalism that made me uncomfortable. That discomfort has grown. But when I wrote that article, I assumed I knew what an Evangelical was. Now I am not so sure.
The word “evangelical” is a transliteration into English of a Greek term meaning “good news”. Evangelicals are good news people. They have good news about God and his kingdom to tell, news that is all wrapped up in Jesus.
Evangelicals have always been marked by a few key indicators. They have, for example, been people of the book. Evangelicals love the Bible. They consider it a revelation from God and authoritative on all matters of faith and practice.
As people of the book, Evangelicals have emphasized the necessity of making a decision to follow Christ. Going with the flow, even in a powerful religious current, is not enough. A personal decision is required. Because of this emphasis, Evangelicals often think of themselves as people who have a “personal relationship with Christ.”
They have also emphasized the necessity of “living out” one’s faith. This emphasis has led Evangelicals to spend more of their own time and money to keep people fed and cared for than anyone else.
These were some of the traditional markers that identified Evangelicals. The question is whether these markers still mean anything. That’s not because traditional Evangelicals have renounced these ideas. Any who have did not intend to remain Evangelical. It is because people are now self-identifying as Evangelical who do not share the movement’s traditional beliefs.
For example, 17 percent of American Muslims who attend mosque at least once a week now identify as Evangelicals. Despite the Evangelical label, they would not say the Bible is authoritative on all matters of faith and practice, nor would they insist on a decision for Christ.
The fact that so many American Muslims are now identifying as Evangelical is not the only surprise. The number of Catholics who identify as Evangelical has more than doubled in the past decade. Certainly, many Catholics share Evangelical-like views of the Bible and the need for a personal decision, but a theological shift alone cannot account for this large, unexpected change.
Ryan Burge, who teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University, adds that “there’s evidence that the share of Orthodox Christians, Hindus, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who identify as evangelical is larger today than it was just a decade ago.” Evangelical Mormons? Evangelical Hindus?
A recent Pew study revealed that the number of white Americans who identify as Evangelical has increased. This contrasts sharply with the mainline churches, which have been hemorrhaging members for decades. While some Evangelicals’ attribute this phenomenon to their theological convictions, the facts point in another direction.
For example, the number of self-identified Evangelicals who admit that they never attend church has risen nearly 50 percent over the last decade. Those numbers were undoubtedly skewed by COVID, but what kind of Evangelical never goes to church, not even online?
Evangelicalism is undergoing a change. However necessary that might be – and revelations about Evangelicalism suggest that it has been necessary for a long time – it is not in this case good news. The movement is not so much being transformed as commandeered. Many newly minted Evangelicals are missing the chief component of Evangelicalism: the good news that God has come to earth in Jesus Christ.
But why are so many people, including non-Protestants and even non-Christians, now identifying as Evangelicals? Ryan Burge believes that in the circles in which these non-Protestant Evangelicals move, “Evangelical” is simply another way of saying, “conservative, religious Republican.” This represents a significant change. In the 1970s, fewer than half of church-attending white Evangelicals were Republicans. That number has now risen to 70 percent.
However highly one thinks of conservative Republicans and their policies, they cannot take the place of Jesus as the centerpiece of Evangelicalism. “Conservative” does not equal “Christian” and “Republican” does not equal “Evangelical”. Without Jesus, the church ceases to be the church and the good news of the gospel is lost.
(First published by Gannett.)