The “evangelical” label is hotly contested in the United States, especially during an election cycle when people debate the meaning of the term and the significance of the “evangelical vote.” What is an evangelical? What is the state of the movement? Recent books have linked white evangelicals to a pseudo-Christian nationalism, or to over-involvement with partisan politics, or to rigid expressions of patriarchy.
Multiple surveys with disparities in data raise a number of interesting questions.
- What do we make of the large number of Christians who adhere to evangelical beliefs (predominantly in minority ethnic churches) yet do not claim an “evangelical identity” (likely due to the term’s political connotations)?
- On the flip side, how do we respond to the large number of people in the United States who describe themselves as “evangelical” but rarely attend church and don’t adhere to core evangelical doctrines?
- What does it mean for “evangelicalism” in the United States when a renewal project that began in the middle of the last century—a movement that sought to provide a counterpoint both to isolationist fundamentalism and social gospel liberalism—has now become nearly synonymous with a socio-political perspective?
- What is the significance of many evangelical churchgoers who, on both the right and the left, appear to be more shaped by their cultural background and political philosophy than by the Scriptures they uphold as their ultimate authority?
- Is there any point in holding to the “evangelical” label when the “brand” (for lack of a better word) encompasses everyone from Paula White to Tim Keller, from John Piper to Robert Jeffress?
These conundrums make some evangelicals throw up their hands and deride the term. Why not dispense with the label? Why not just call ourselves Christians? Or gospel people? Or find some other way of describing the beauty of the cross-cultural, cross-denominational renewal movement we’ve inherited?
A better way may be to step back and get both a temporal and geographic perspective before rushing too quickly to shed our “evangelical” identity.
Let’s start by getting some perspective historically.
Thomas Kidd’s Who Is An Evangelical? believes this “partisan and ethnic” definition of evangelicals is “historically peculiar.” Evangelicalism has been multiethnic from the beginning; whites do not constitute “normal” evangelicals; and the political elements of the movement in recent decades do not define the heart of evangelical identity.
A closer look at the history of evangelicalism shows that the movement is not and cannot be defined by this present moment. We stand in a long line of brothers and sisters who were known for their commitment to the authority of the Bible, their focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross, their evangelistic zeal, and their social activism. We have a rich history that spans generations (even preceding the American neo-evangelical movement). To dismiss too quickly the term “evangelical” might lead us to disassociate with people in the past who are exemplars of faithful Christianity.
Next, let’s widen the view so we see the worldwide landscape. We cannot talk about evangelicalism in the present without acknowledging the massive shift that has taken place recently. Samuel Escobar points out the geographic change from Christianity’s prevalence in the north to the “global south.”
As we look at the religious map of the world today we find a marked contrast between the situation at the beginning of the twentieth century and the situation in the early twenty-first century. Scottish missiologist Andrew Walls has described a “massive southward shift of the center of gravity of the Christian world”.
Gina Zurlo in Evangelicals Around the World provides the numbers.
- If we count individuals in denominations associated with evangelical beliefs (the five largest which are found in Brazil, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Indonesia), we’re talking about 150.6 million people.
- If we count individuals who self-identify as evangelical whether or not they belong to an evangelical denomination, we’re talking 134.9 million.
- If we count evangelicals who line up with key theological descriptors, (the Operation World method), we’re looking at 545.9 million!
What’s the takeaway here? Zurlo writes:
“However it is defined, evangelicalism is clearly a global movement. Europe, the birthplace of evangelicalism, is now the least evangelical continent in the world, by percentage, at 3.8 percent.”
Evangelicalism is a global phenomenon. This reality was driven home for me during the five years I spent serving evangelical churches in post-Communist Eastern Europe. Some of the particular challenges and political problems we face in the United States only affect one segment of worldwide evangelical movement.
In Christianity Today, Tish Harrison Warren claims the “global evangelical” label because our identity is not tied solely to what happens in the United States:
The vanguard of the Christian movement is not on American shores. North American culture, then, does not determine the future of the church. Western secularization, or even the marginalization of Christianity in the West, has about as much power to limit the flourishing of the church as it has to stop a hurricane or change the seasons. The indigenous growth and revival in global Christianity—which would have been unimaginable merely 100 years ago—reminds us that we need not be afraid. God is relentlessly at work in the world.
When you catch a glimpse of evangelicalism as a global movement, you realize how myopic it is to bemoan the label’s political connotations in North America as if to quickly dismiss the descriptor in favor of something else. Warren’s challenge is right:
When I think of evangelicals, I think of Singaporeans planting churches in Thailand, or Rwandan families serving refugees in Uganda, or Nigerian seminarians, or the evangélicos of South America—a label widely used by Protestant Latinos. We need to keep these voices front and center in any discussion of the church. They are our future and also our present—the ones who make up the majority of evangelicals on earth.
A Bigger Question
In the end, when we broaden our horizon historically and geographically, we’re faced with a question that, for me at least, overrides all of the challenging questions I listed at the beginning of this article:
- Why should we allow the peculiar American connotations of “evangelical” to have outsized influence in how we perceive “evangelical identity?”
Americans are not the sole or primary claimants of the term evangelical. It is a narrow and frankly American-centric view of the world that would make socio-political controversies in one nation define a worldwide movement. For that reason, I aspire to join my brothers and sisters across the world as a global evangelical who is:
(1) grateful for all the good I’ve gleaned from this tradition,
(2) excited by the explosive growth of the church throughout the world,
(3) committed to the authority of the Bible, the centrality of the gospel, the urgency of evangelism, and the world-changing implications of the gospel, and
(4) dedicated to renewing the renewal project so that the church continues to reform in light of the gospel and the Scriptures, yes even here in the United States.
Whenever I describe myself as an evangelical or use the term evangelicalism, I try to point to the historical and global definition that transcends any one location or one-sided political connotation. A global movement requires us to push back against an American-centric definition that is often skewed because of politics. And of course, even more important than embracing the global scope of the term is pointing people to the euangelion, the good news of Jesus that changes lives all around the world.
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