What is your response to the word ‘Evangelical’?

I was having an conversation with someone the other day about the word ‘Evangelical’ and how it is perceived by people.  In my experience, perceptions and responses to the word ‘Evangelical’, especially from those outside the church, are almost entirely negative.

The context I hear these comments are often people saying to me things like ‘Oh, you’re not one of those Evangelical Christians are you?’  This is often said in a tone which is clearly suggesting that being Evangelical equals being judgemental/happy-clappy/right-wing/homophobic/bonkers (delete as appropriate).

Consequently, I use the word rarely and answer carefully when someone asks me that question…

Unhelpful label

And it seems I am not the only one.  A few years ago I did some research on Evangelical perspectives on social injusticeand I interviewed a number of high profile church leaders.  I was surprised that Nicky Gumbel, the author of the Alpha course, turned me down for an interview on the specific basis that he does not consider himself an Evangelical Christian.  He was very clear with me that he finds the label unhelpful.

Of course, the word ‘Evangelical’ gets used loads in church arguments and you could do endless blog posts on the technical and political uses of the word.  But I am not concerned so much with those kind of internal debates. What interests me more is how the term is perceived by those outside the church.

US Evangelicalism

A key factor is the profile of US Evangelicalism which unlike its British counterpart, has an overt role in mainstream politics and is perceived as almost entirely right-wing.  By contrast, in the UK we never hear the media talk about politicians ‘chasing the Evangelical vote’.

But the profile and nature of US Evangelicalism affects people’s perceptions of Evangelicals generally.  I wonder whether the word Evangelical has become so encrusted with negative associations that it is beyond redemption.

Energy and commitment

It is not that I think the underlying beliefs of an evangelical faith be jettisoned.  The passion, energy and commitment to Jesus and seeing his love transform people are all strengths of many evangelical churches.  If anything, these beliefs and commitments need to be emphasised more within the Church.  But as a label, I wonder if the word Evangelical comes with too much baggage.

But what do you think?

Remember the question is not about what you believe, or whether you would consider yourself an Evangelical or not.  The question is what is your response when you hear the word ‘Evangelical’?

And please leave a comment below about why you voted as you did!

Related:

About Jon Kuhrt

Jon Kuhrt works with people affected by homelessness, offending and addictions at the West London Mission. He, his wife and three children are part of Streatham Baptist Church and he is a member of the Christians on the Left. He likes football...but loves cricket.
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24 Responses to What is your response to the word ‘Evangelical’?

  1. Annie Weatherly-Barton says:

    Interesting!
    For many years now I have not considered myself an “evangelical”.
    One: Term has been destroyed by the moral right and those who do not believe in Christians being active in society! Damaged irreversibly, I would suggest, by the American right!
    Two: It no longer defines who I am or what I am about. My preferred option: Christian Liberationist; Want to be known as a Christian whilst also finding myself more closely aligned to Liberation Theology, Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff; Caesar Romero and Francis of Assisi; John Vincent & Chris Rowland; Walter Brueggeman; Practitioners: Bob Holman & Pip Wilson and Jim Punton!

    Nauseated by many — certainly not all — of those who call themselves “evangelicals” who are willing to go along with the harsh, judgemental, black & white version of the Bible as they are taught. Who would rather go along with said “diet” than truly think for themselves and set about actually reading the Bible; Those living from what the latest “flavour of the month” avers that their word is the truth and the word of God; Those that would pour scorn those who work in the community and call them “lefties” and members of the “social Gospel” brigade, or worse.

    Why do people call themselves “evangelicals?” It is not a word that would be found in the Bible anyway? I suppose it is like a lot of words and terms that have lost all meaning down the ages but probably more so during the 20th and 21st century. Why is it people cannot just call themselves “Christians” which is what the followers of Jesus became known as in the early church?

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Thanks Annie – I think some of your experiences mirror mine and I would agree with your view that the word has come to mean something in many people’s eyes which is very hard to recover.

      Interestingly, I think your last paragraph is exactly where Nicky Gumbel was coming from in not wanting to use the label – as he found the label unnecessary and just wanted to be described as a follower of Jesus.

  2. aj says:

    Isn’t this largely recovering the ground and debate that Dave Tomlinson and Post-evangelical opened up in the early 90’s?

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Hi aj, I can see why you make that point but I was seeking to focus the debate onto how the word is perceived by most people today and what are people’s experience of that, rather than a deconstruction and departure from an evangelical approach which is how I see Dave Tomlinson’s work. I think evangelical culture has moved on considerably since those days in many ways with relation to social justice, community engagement and also its theology with the influence of people like Tom Wright – I just wonder about the actual word and what people hear when it is used.

  3. Andy in Germany says:

    In an English speaking context my response and experience is mostly that of Annie, although fortunately the most influential “evangelical” for me was my dad who had the theology but also the social justice. I never understood why for so many you had to be ‘liberal’ to have an interest in social justice, and ‘evangelical’ to take the bible seriously.
    In a German contect the evangelical church is just the Lutheran church and has a similar statut to the Anglican church in the UK, and carried a whole different set of connotations…

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Thanks Andy – it’s always interesting to have the perspective from a other country. It was only when I read a biog of Bonhoeffer recently that I realised how the word in Germany has a whole other set of other assumptions attached to it.

  4. John Bavington says:

    Jon, I agree with you about Dave Tomlinson – his work (imho) addresses a type of evangelicalism which I think is widely represented in free churches (and relates more closely to American evangelicalism), which could perhaps be labelled “fundamentalist”. I think in the Anglican church, evangelicals on the whole have been much nearer the (so-called) centre, with a softer approach to Biblical interpretation and a stronger commitment to social justice.

    I use the terms “open evangelical” or “charismatic evangelical” to describe myself only in company I am confident will understand what I mean by the terms. If I think I need to define the term, I prefer “Christian” as I prefer to define that term – or to move a discussion on to the reasons for following Jesus, which is far more significant.

    All descriptors are liable to change or misrepresentation (either accidental or deliberate).

  5. To me the word “Evangelical” unequivocally means the worship of the Bible (more often a specific *interpretation* of the Bible) instead of the worship of God.

  6. Greg Smith says:

    Interestingly I was writing about this as long ago as the late 1980s http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=84l0WG2t0OYC&pg=PA10&dq=newham+sect&hl=en&ei=udjwTLGRJpSxhAeqp-iGDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=newham%20sect&f=false

    And now I wrok part time for the Evangelical Alliance and the research programme we are doing is telling us a lot about Evangelical Identity…

    Personally I still have good feelings about the word Evangelical… and would still describe myself as one… Though often with other adjectives like “open” or “radical” or “arminian” or “mildly charismatic” .. and tend to say follower of Jesus rather than “Christian” especially when talking to Muslims and Hindus..

    However I do also feel the “cringe factor” at the term and get upset at the way it is linked to right wing fundamentalism and loaded with stereotypes by the media… and added to by the stements of many self defined “evangelicals”.

    I wonder if for once we could just translate it to Anglo Saxon and just call ourselves “Good News People / Christians”… Or does that sound too much like rebranding echoes of New Labour and now CSM going for Christians on the Left… well at least not on the “left behind” wing. 🙂

  7. ianchisnall says:

    I am prepared to accept the term carefully (and essentially in private), as much because in its mid width use it helps me to speak to people with a similar background who are struggling to emerge from it. I have a book that identified 7 definitions of the word including as a description of any Christian who owns the Scriptures which is a definition that includes all Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics as well as many like me who don’t have such a traditional tribe to belong to. If that is the case perhaps all of these descriptions are pretty redundant. So for public use I would limit myself to using the term Christian.

  8. Those outside the church have enough trouble understanding us without all the labels, so depending on the audience I’m much more likely to refer to myself just as a Christian, however in Christian circles I’m happy to call myself evangelical. Labels can be very problematic, but they can also save a hundred words although you still often have to explain yourself. There is nothing wrong with the term ‘evangelical’ in itself. The problem is all the baggage we’ve created around it. The difficulty is finding a better word that is understood by enough people. I’m still looking.

    As an aside, I avoid calling myself religious. That’s another term that has unhelpful connotations that I don’t like to be associated with!

  9. Ben Niblett says:

    I’m very fond of the word, but among non-churchy people in Britain I’ve mostly found they associated it with being American, right wing, embarrassing, judgemental, anti-intellectual, patriarchal, uneducated and/or smug, mostly by people who didn’t like those things much. It’s a good marker for people who know Christianity well and want to know what flavour you are, but otherwise it’s often a bit of a barrier to communicating.

  10. Sue Russell says:

    I am old and conservative (note the small “c”) and I warm to the word in a simplistic way. To me an evangelical is someone who is committed to Jesus as the One Way, is in a totally abandoned love-relationship with him and longs to see others in such a relationship. Denominational and political allegiance are distractions – as are many other factors evangelicals are frequently told they regard as sinful. Some of them may be, others not but all are subsidiary to that relationship and as the relationship grows so will the understanding of those factors and a willingness (where necessary) to put them aside – the Holy Spirit is a wonderful teacher and enabler!
    None of this devalues the substitutionary, atoning death of Jesus – but that’s the point – he did the work which we accept and we do not have the right to judge others just to show them the way to him.
    I’m with Charles Wesley on this:
    Happy, if with my latest breath
    I may but gasp His Name,
    Preach Him to all and cry in death,
    “Behold, behold the Lamb!”

  11. Could you vote have an option “Both good and bad” please?

  12. Giles Kinght says:

    I assume most have little idea what evangelical means but for those who do outside the church in the UK it is mostly pretty negative. Many of the labels we use whether baptist, charismatic or anglican are for the most part either misunderstood or seen in a negative light. As a Baptist minister who currently works for an evangelical mission agency I avoid using the term evangelical but there is one term even worse -fundamentalist! Use this at your peril!

  13. Glyn Jones says:

    I am happy being called an evangelical since to me (as in the NT Greek), that indicates someone who is a bearer of good news. Shouldn’t all true followers of Jesus be that?

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Thanks Glyn – but i think that’s the point of this post and question – is it clear to others when we use that word that we are bearers of good news? If the word produces a sense of ‘bad news’ then there is a bit of a problem with it (whatever the original Greek meaning is!)

  14. Sam Priestley says:

    Hi Jon! As a very irregular church goer (family services 4 or 5 times a year with my Guide unit and other special events) I view the term evangelical with suspicion. If I was using it to describe someone I would be using it to describe someone with an air of “persuasion” but with a vigour that would make me feel uncomfortable. I am entirely happy to be in the company of people who have a strong faith and who are happy to proclaim or explain their faith but I don’t want that to be with the purpose of “converting” me to the same way of thinking or interpretation!

    It is probably an inaccurate definition of the word evangelical but you asked for opinions of how the word made people feel! So there you have it!

  15. I was a happy Evangelical until my divorce and coming out as Gay. It was then the warm cosy evangelicals became the cold frosty crowd. I learned what it meant to be on the receiving end of evangelical hostility and exclusion. Thankfully Jesus is not like that and so my journey continues.

  16. Phil Wood says:

    An interesting post this, Jon. I exited the ‘evangelical’ world stage left a while ago, but I’m still near enough the door to appreciate what ‘evangelical’ felt like from the inside. These days I use the word in different ways but most of them have associations I’m not comfortable with. I’m already on record as taking a dim view of labels ( http://radref.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/prison-of-ism-towards-life-without.html) but there’s some difference between pejorative labeling as an alternative to genuine communication or a description inhabited from the inside. ‘Anabaptist’ started off as a term of abuse, but I’m happy to call myself one. I no longer identify in the same way with ‘evangelical’. I think I’m also near enough that door to say that with a residual sense of regret.

  17. Neil Moores says:

    So, so many intelligent, independent-minded people nowadays are having great problems with this: John 5 24 “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. 25 Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.” Presumably all who consider themselves evangelical would endorse this biblical text which is entirely discriminating (even insulting) toward those of us who are spiritually aware enough to know that there is no segregation in an afterlife and that the only ‘condemnation’ a human soul faces on passing over is having to experience a personal review of all their thoughts, intentions, actions and inactions from their life lived on earth (physical matter reality). My response to the word ‘evangelical’ is therefore similar to my response to any term that describes radical aspects of any religion: one of hope that it will become more moderate; less bent on converting others and less certain that it and it alone holds the key to truth and ‘salvation’.

  18. Pingback: ‘Good news to those who need it most’: evangelical social action | Resistance & Renewal

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