How do you define an evangelical?

“Someone who likes Billy Graham and likes to debate the definition of ‘evangelical.’”

We chuckle because there’s more than a little truth to that joke. But these days, more than a few wonder if the “evangelical” label is well past its sell-by date.

What’s in a Name?

British scholar David Bebbington is known best for his description of four major traits of evangelicalism (conversionist, biblicist, cross-centered, activist). This definition played a major role in a book released a decade ago, in which four scholars debated the meaning of the term and the spectrum of Christians encompassed by it. (The four perspectives were “fundamentalist,” “confessional,” “generic,” and “post-conservative.”) Notably, all the scholars and editors were white men, a fact that unwittingly adds credence to the claim that “evangelicalism” as a movement is predominantly white.

Recent researchers have attempted to define evangelicalism by doctrinal and ecclesial commitments, and they’ve found that many people who adhere to common evangelical beliefs do not claim the label for themselves. At the same time, many who do not adhere to common evangelical beliefs wear the badge proudly, usually while going into the voting booth. 

It’s the close association of evangelicals with the Religious Right that has caused confusion in recent years. The term has evolved from its American manifestation as a renewal project in the middle years of the 20th century. At first, American evangelicals provided a counterpoint both to the isolationist tendencies of fundamentalists and also to the modernists who held unorthodox views of Scripture. It was the movement’s political mobilization in the 1980s that altered the landscape, and the 2016 election of Trump, who captured a large percentage of white evangelicals, exacerbated the identity crisis.

Today, there are leaders within historically evangelical institutions who don’t immediately answer “yes” to the question “Are you an evangelical?” because they don’t know how the questioner defines the term. This shouldn’t surprise us. A decade ago, this conversation was anticipated by Os Guinness, who spearheaded An Evangelical Manifesto, a statement of evangelical belief that sought to distinguish between evangelicalism as a renewal movement and its too-frequent political connotations.

Two-Track Understanding of Evangelicals

So here we are, ten years later, and the definition of “evangelical” is still being debated. Do we define evangelical by those who identify as such? Do we define evangelical the way political pundits do? Or do we define evangelical by core doctrinal commitments?

I vote for a variation of the doctrinal definition, but I do so with eyes wide open to the fact many more claim the label, while many who fit the doctrinal description don’t want the label at all. I don’t think we can dismiss self-identifying evangelicals who hold to theological or political positions we find problematic (whether on the political right or theological left). Neither can we dismiss brothers and sisters who hold tightly to evangelical distinctives and yet want nothing to do with the label.

Right now, I’ve got a two-track understanding of evangelicalism, a way of holding together an aspirational definition and a cultural one. There is evangelicalism as a renewal movement based on common beliefs and distinctives and evangelicalism as a sociological and political phenomenon. The first is more aspirational and more closely aligned to the movement’s roots (as well as its global connections), while the second is a sociological manifestation of varying traits of evangelical culture (even if the core beliefs and distinctives are no longer present).

We’re not alone in this need for a two-track understanding of a movement. Today, large numbers of Americans identify as Catholic but do not affirm official Catholic doctrine and may, in fact, defy Catholic teaching in their lives. Yet they still see themselves as Catholic. Articles from Catholic leaders lament the reality of how many parishioners are not “practicing.” Hence the many conversations about who is truly Catholic not just “culturally” Catholic, and why renewal (toward the aspirational vision) is needed.

Evangelicalism departs from Catholicism in a number of ways. There’s no pope, no hierarchy, no outward, visible unity in a structural form. No “evangelical by baptism alone.” Nor is there an evangelical “catechism” on which all leaders would agree.

But there is still at some level a cohesive movement. It’s cultural. You know it when you see it, whether it’s the Passion conference or parachurch organizations like InterVarsity and Cru, or major churches like Moody Church in Chicago or Redeemer in New York City or North Point in Atlanta.

Similarly, all across the country (especially in the South) are people who feel an affinity toward churches and institutions labeled “evangelical” even if they do not regularly attend those churches or follow the lead of those institutions. Their moral intuitions are culturally and politically driven, which leads “cultural evangelicals” in a more populist direction than may be the case with “cultural Catholics,” who usually lean more liberal (although we should take care to remember there are large numbers of populist Catholics).

To Keep or Ditch the Name

Where does this leave us? Should we give up the name “evangelical”?

I would not recommend Catholics change their name because of the many non-practicing Catholics who do not embrace Catholic teaching. Instead, I’d recommend they work to reclaim the historic meaning of the term. Similarly, there are Baptist churches far from where I believe true Baptists should be doctrinally (including First Baptist Church of America), but I am somehow able to hold both the historic definition and the contemporary de-formation in my mind at the same time.

I take a similar stance with evangelicalism. I don’t want to lose the aspirational beauty of the term “evangelical.” But we shouldn’t use an aspirational definition (even if it’s helpful and confessional) to conveniently disavow “cultural evangelicals.” We ought instead to do some serious soul-searching as we consider the gap between historic, doctrinal evangelicalism and its cultural, often-political manifestations. Soul-searching may lead us to some uncomfortable places and some surprising conclusions about characteristics of the evangelical movement we thought were healthy but were actually tainted. Perhaps it will be painful but necessary to recognize how the culture of evangelicalism has morphed into something unhealthy and unsustainable. Our aspirational vision will lead us back to the past for the sake of the future renewal, but such ventures into evangelical history will need to trace the roots of both the good and bad fruit we’ve seen in our time.

There may come a time when we find it impossible to hold to both aspirational and cultural definitions for “evangelical.” Perhaps the political connotations have already engulfed the aspirational. It may be that more Christians choose to identify with their denominational heritage rather than the renewal movement that has influenced it.

Still, as I consider the situation globally, I take heart. Evangelical is not an American reality. The word has different connotations in different contexts. It has a rich history that spans generations (even preceding the American neo-evangelical movement). It is a narrow and American-centered view of the world to allow American controversies to define the movement.

We have to work with what we have: large numbers of people who identify as evangelical and don’t adhere to its doctrinal commitments, and large numbers of people who adhere to common doctrinal commitments but don’t identify as evangelical. The way forward will be to better understand people in the first category (who have an affinity for the labels “evangelical” and “born again”), as well as our friends in the second (who don’t).

These identity crises have come and gone before, to the point we may view them as inherent in the fabric of the evangelical movement. The good news is, we don’t have to choose between preserving the best of our evangelical heritage and reforming whatever needs to change. At its core, evangelicalism is about renewal. That’s the best thing evangelicals have to offer, and right now, that’s what we need the most.