The word "evangelical" is one of the most abused words in our culture and even in the church. Earlier in my adult life, I almost always encountered this word as we shared testimony or witness, which was grounded in a deeper motivation to reach people outside the fellowship of the church with the good news of the difference that Jesus had made in our lives.
Increasingly, I sense that the word “evangelical” now connotes something very different for many people. I am more likely to encounter this word as I listen to television or radio reports on political elections, or as I overhear conversations about the fragmentation of religious denominations.
So what does the word “evangelical” mean?
It is not a synonym for conservative. At the same time, liberalism has no future without it. It is not a subgroup within a political party or within a church. Whenever the word "evangelical" is used in this way, something is deeply wrong.
"Evangelical" is the good news that points to Jesus and his coming kingdom which forgives our sin, overcomes our injustices and heals our divisions. I may have first experienced the good news in a more private, personal way; for example, I remember the words in Isaiah 1:16, 18, “Wash yourselves, make yourself clean… though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow,” without fully absorbing the clear calling of Isaiah 1:17: “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” In time, the salvation of God came to include more than my inner world, and encompassed my relationships with others and indeed with all of creation.
This was God’s agenda, and it was and is comprehensive. If we could achieve all of this, on our own, we would have. The gift granted to an evangelical is that Jesus has done and is doing this for us and through us. The sin of an evangelical is to claim this as an (exclusive) possession within a culture or a portion of the church.
I have been nurtured and fed by the stream of Christianity that flows from the deep reservoir of evangelicalism. I praise God for this gift. And so I cannot allow such a beautiful, life-giving word – “evangelical” – to be marginalized, scorned, scapegoated or neglected.
One option would be to simply find another word for “evangelism.” A friend recently suggested “love.” Why not substitute the word “love” for “evangelism”? Here a problem arises: it is also true that in a culture of individualism, we are prone to self-deception. Love may not carry the full weight of God’s agenda; it might exclude facets of justice or compassion, courage or empathy or sacrifice. Anyone who has ever experienced betrayal will know that the word love carries its own baggage!
The good news, the evangelion (Greek) (evangelism) of God’s reign was a radical idea that shattered stereotypes and included the excluded. I simply push back a bit against the default notion that we allow the word to be defined by those who fail to appreciate or embody its true meaning. We are in desperate need –in the culture and in the church – of an evangelical movement that does not suffer conformity or captivity to the way it is so often perceived, stereotyped and yes, even lived.
Why? Because Jesus was, is and will always be bigger than all of that. This is not bad news. It is good news!
Ken Carter is resident bishop of the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church.