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By Dan Baumgartner on
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Sep 28 in Dan's Musings
Hopefully you know by now that every topic for this weekly column reflects a work-in-progress. It’s not deep research or polished treatise. The title tells the truth: Musing. Rumination. Pondering. Reflection. Wondering. Recently I’ve been chewing on this: Has the word “evangelical” been ruined? 
To be clear- I’m far from the first person from the evangelical tradition to wonder about this- books have been written, articles submitted, blogposts shared.
The issue is that evangelical is perceived by many people to be more of a political term than a theological one. When pundits talk about surveying “evangelicals,” they reference a group of people better known for a particular point of view on social issues than anything about faith...more a statistical voting block than a part of the Church.
           
So. What does evangelical mean?  Or at least, what did it once mean?  The word itself means “good news” and references the gospel of Jesus.  As a trans-denominational renewal movement, evangelicalism took hold in the 18th century, starting in England and filtering to the United States. Figures like George Whitefield and John and Charles Wesley were rooted in spiritual renewals in Europe, but also had connections and made visits to the States. The movement gained momentum in the U.S. through The Great Awakening(s), and preachers like Jonathan Edwards and later Charles Finney. All fine and good. But what characteristics marked the evangelicals, since they appeared in many different types of churches? Four main things:
 
1)      Conversion- The emphasis was on not being a nominal or cultural Christian, but one who had a specific encounter with Christ and responded to the invitation of a
personal relationship. This fervency then was lived out in many ways, including a commitment to extending the divine invitation to other people.
 
2)      Scripture- rather than a holy book for the learned or clergy, scripture was to be studied by everyone and valued highly as God’s most consistent way of communicating with human beings. The Bible was absolutely trustworthy for guiding
life and faith.
 
3)      Christ-centeredness- Evangelicals were rooted in the belief that Jesus’ cross and resurrection changed everything. The redemption of human beings in life and for
eternity was intimately connected to the costly grace given in Christ.
 
4)      Activism- This may be the one most often forgotten by modern evangelical Christians. From the earliest times, it was evangelicals who were found leading the abolition movements to eliminate slavery, who advocated equal opportunities for woman, who lobbied for equality in education across races, who created hospitals and schools and homeless ministries. These kinds of missional outreaches were fundamental to a life responding to Christ.
 
Hollywood Presbyterian has long considered itself an evangelical church, and I have always identified as an evangelical Christian. It’s not as simple now. I don’t want to make a political statement when I use the word. I want it to carry the traditional sense of encouraging personal faith in Jesus, but many people no longer hear it that way. Still- I have yet to find a suitable replacement. Each time I avoid evangelical, I end up using a paragraph instead of a word. It’s cumbersome. Sometimes I use modifying descriptors- theological evangelical or evangelical in the spiritual sense. Sometimes I explicitly say “I’m not using it in the political voting block sense.” I haven’t found a perfect solution. I only know that if evangelical includes these four characteristics listed above- I affirm it wholeheartedly.
 
Does this matter?  It might seem like a lot of angst over one word, but it’s important for us to think about. Explaining our faith in a compelling way is a constant challenge. Bible scholar N.T. Wright says it well: “Part of the joy and stress of being a thinking Christian (is) constantly having to figure out the best way of saying essential things in an ever-changing culture.”  Let’s keep talking.
 
           
See you soon,       
Pastor Dan

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