Can “Evangelical” Be Saved?
How the Church Lost Control of the Good News
by Bob Smietana | July 11, 2018
More than a century ago, a small group of Swedish immigrants and children of immigrants in my hometown of Attleboro, Massachusetts, decided to build a church. They wanted a place to worship together. And they wanted to sing the songs they knew, in a language they understood, among people they could love and trust. So they built a home where their little family of God’s friends could flourish.
But the Bible they cherished and the Jesus they loved wasn’t a treasure just for their little family. It was good news for their neighbors as well. That good news—known in the New Testament as the euangelion or “evangel”—was a gift that needed
to be shared.
So the members of that congregation became evangelicals, or people of the good news. They opened the doors of the church to anyone who wanted to come. And church members began inviting their neighbors and friends.
Including my little brother.
My brother had a friend named Joey Clark, whose family went there—to the Evangelical Covenant Church. Joey invited my brother to a Sunday-school picnic. He had such a good time that he asked to go back. My mom took him. And one by one we all followed along.
Those evangelicals welcomed us with open arms. They sang with gusto, drank a lot of coffee, and hung out for an hour after church chatting and laughing. They told us good news. God gave us the gift of his love in Jesus, they told us. And Jesus wanted us to pass that love on to our neighbors.
More than just telling us the good news—they also lived it out. The church told us that we were God’s friends. And we were now their friends as well. Even though we were strangers, they made room for us in their hearts and in their family.
That’s what it meant to be an evangelical.
These days it’s not so easy to be part of this tribe of Christians. The word “evangelical” has increasingly become politically charged and has become shorthand for white Christian Republican voters. That’s in part because the term has both religious and political meanings.
On the religious side, evangelicals are the largest single tradition in American religion. About one in four Americans (25.4 percent) are evangelicals, according to Pew Research. By contrast, 14.7 percent of Americans are mainline Protestants (think Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans), while 6.5 percent belong to historically
black churches. One in five Americans are Catholic (20.8 percent).
While all these Christians groups share core beliefs, they emphasize different parts of the faith. And they often see political and social issues differently—making them distinct from one another.
On the political side, white, self-identified evangelical voters are the largest single voting bloc in the country, making up 26 percent of the electorate in the 2016 presidential election. This makes them slightly more numerous than Catholic voters (23 percent), according to Pew Research. While only 56 percent of the evangelical religious movement identify as Republicans, according to Pew, 81 percent of white, self-identified evangelical voters supported the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, in the 2016 election.
Some evangelicals have begun to think the political meaning of “evangelical” has overshadowed its religious connection. “When you Google ‘evangelicals,’ you get Trump,” Doug Birdsall, the honorary chair of the Lausanne Movement, told Sarah Pulliam Bailey of the Washington Post earlier this year. “When people say, what does it mean to be an evangelical, people don’t say evangelism or the gospel.”
Like the rest of the country, the evangelical religious movement is fragmenting, divided by politics, race, and social change. America is becoming more secular—with the growth of the so-called “Nones,” those who have no religious identity. At the same time, the country has become more diverse—half the babies born in the United States today are children of color.
Within a few decades, there will be no racial majority group in the US. America’s social, demographic, and religious landscapes are being rebooted before our very eyes. And upheaval wrought by these changes has led to great polarization in the country—and in the church, including the evangelical movement.
A love for Jesus, the Bible, and our neighbors may no longer be able to hold us together. That’s caused at least some to argue that the word “evangelical” should be discarded. Perhaps it’s time for the Covenant to move on from that name—and from the broader movement, they suggest.
As a religion reporter who covers evangelicals, I hope the answer is no. There’s still a lot that evangelicals can learn from the Covenant. And at their core, Covenanters reflect the best of what it means to be evangelical.
A confusing term
Still, the word “evangelical” has troubles.
There’s no consensus on what it means, says Mark Pattie, pastor of Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton, Minnesota.
For people inside the church, “evangelical” means a love for the Bible, for Jesus, for neighbors, and for sharing the good news. For people outside the church, the word means conservative Christian voters. And political overtones of the evangelical movement can keep people from hearing the good news at times.
“It’s one more conversation that you have to have with someone before you can talk about Jesus,” Pattie says. “If we see it as a hindrance to our relationship to the world around us, then getting rid of that name would solve the problem.”
Perhaps some explanation is in order. The word “evangelical” has at least three meanings—and all three are used by the pollsters and reporters who write about religion for a living. So it’s crucial to know which meaning we are talking about.
At its heart, the Covenant is a family. And families talk about difficult issues. They work through conflicts.
First, there are “self-identified” evangelicals. Pollsters and researchers identify them by asking this question: “Do you consider yourself a born-again or evangelical Christian?” Those who say yes are considered evangelicals for survey purposes. Pew Research, Gallup, the Public Religion Research Institute, and other major pollsters use this approach for most of their studies.
One complication: surveyors sometimes divide evangelicals by race. That’s because white evangelicals and African American evangelicals vote differently and often have different views on public policy. As a result, many African American evangelicals are actually classified as Black Protestants—especially when it comes to voting. White evangelicals are put in their own category
There are also evangelicals by denomination. This approach is used by the General Social Survey (GSS) and by Pew in their major religious landscape studies. Surveyors ask Americans about the denomination of the church they attend—and then sort those denominations into different categories, like evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, etc. This group of evangelicals is more diverse.
Then there are evangelicals by belief. This is a new approach—developed by the National Association of Evangelicals and LifeWay Research. (Full disclosure, I work closely with LifeWay Research in my day job.) In this approach, surveyors ask questions about the Bible, Jesus, evangelism, and activism—and then identify those who hold strong evangelical beliefs. This group is more ethnically diverse than those defined by other approaches.
Fifty-eight percent of evangelicals by belief are white, 23 percent are African American, and 14 percent are Hispanic. Five percent claim another ethnicity. By contrast, 70 percent of self-identified evangelicals are white, 14 percent are African American, 12 percent are Hispanic, and 4 percent claim another ethnicity. However, a surprising number of self-identified evangelicals don’t hold these beliefs. And a significant number who do hold those beliefs don’t call themselves evangelical.
And Covenanters have their own definitions.
Pattie likes the definition found in Covenant Affirmations. Those affirmations, he says, describe the Covenant as an apostolic church, a catholic church, a Reformation church, and an evangelical church. “Evangelicals,” according to the Covenant Affirmations, “historically have been characterized by a strong insistence on biblical authority, the absolute necessity of new birth, Christ’s mandate to evangelize the world, the continuing need for education and formation in a Christian context, and a responsibility for benevolence and the advancement of social justice.”
That’s a great heritage, says Pattie. And he’s not quite ready to give up on that. For now, he’d rather focus on helping his congregation live up to those values than on finding a new name. “I’d rather talk about what the word means and how it points us to what we aspire to be,” he says.
Covenanters have a long history of using the word “evangelical,” says Chris Gehrz, a professor of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and member of Salem Covenant Church. And it is different from how other evangelicals use the term, at least in the United States.
Many American evangelicals are part of what’s called the neo-evangelical movement that’s closely tied to Billy Graham and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). That movement was started by Protestants who were conservative but not fundamentalists, says Gehrz.
But Covenanters trace their use of the word back to Pietism. Gehrz says that Swedish preacher and writer Carl Olof Rosenius used the word “evangelical” in the 1800s to describe a renewal movement of the state church in Sweden. Those Swedish Christians, like other Pietist movements, tried to overcome divisions among Christians by drawing them back to Jesus.
“Historians credit the Pietists’ warm-hearted devotion to Jesus with reviving the cold, harsh, bickering Christianity of the time,” Gehrz says in The Pietist Option, a book he co-wrote last year with Pattie.
Making room for everyone
Retired Covenant pastor Willie O. Peterson is also fine with keeping the term—despite the controversies. Those controversies won’t go away even if the word goes out of use,
In some circles, he says, the word “evangelical” is used to exclude people. But in the Covenant things are different. There’s enough room for Christians who disagree with one another.
“One reason why I love the Covenant is our commitment to including believers rather than to excluding them,” he says. “At times that makes me very uncomfortable, which is healthy.”
Alice Lee, chair of the Covenant Executive Board, still calls herself evangelical—because for her the word focuses on the heart of the Christian faith. “The heart of being an evangelical is sharing the gift of God’s grace,” she says.
Still, she knows the term can be divisive, especially when it comes to politics. “Some people think it means that you are white Republican,” she says. “I am not white and I don’t identify with a particular party.”
Lee says she’s wary of Christians being too closely allied with either political party in the United States—especially as the country has become more polarized. Those political divisions can end up splitting the church. “We need to listen and learn and talk about our differences—and figure them out,” she says.
Mosaic Community Covenant Church, where Lee’s husband, Ed, is the pastor, tries to live out that approach. It’s a small, multiethnic congregation outside of Houston. “We invite everyone to come and be part of the family,” she says.
Facing the future
Whatever they call themselves, evangelicals will face challenges in the years to come.
The church is changing, “whether we like it or not,” says Darrell Griffin, pastor of Oakdale Covenant Church in Chicago.
Griffin says the word “evangelicals” was dropped from Oakdale’s name years ago, under the late Willie Jemison, who was the church’s long-time pastor. “Pastor Jemison said, ‘If I put the name evangelical in there—no black person would walk through the door.’”
Griffin adds that the word has become a turnoff for younger Christians. Evangelicals once stood for morality, Griffin says. “Now it’s all about, ‘we need to win.’ The evangelicals don’t have credibility with kids like my son.”
The challenges facing evangelicals—political and otherwise—are the same challenges that Americans in general face—a massive demographic, religious, and social rebooting of the nation. America has become more diverse and more secular, and that is putting pressure on all religious groups. Fewer people believe in God these days—so the role of religion in the culture is being renegotiated. And so are the relationships between Christians of different ethnic backgrounds.
Consider this: among Americans over sixty-five, nearly seven in ten identify as white Christians. Among Americans under thirty, only about one in five (22 percent) is a white Christian, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Twenty-nine percent of Americans under thirty are Christians of color. Thirty-eight percent are Nones. Those demographic realities will force evangelicals and other Christians to deal with the racial, ethnic, and political divides that persist in the church.
Those divides aren’t going away. But if the evangelical movement is to have a future, its churches can’t remain segregated. The numbers simply won’t allow us to.
None of this is a surprise to Covenanters. The denomination began talking about race and ethnicity decades ago. We aren’t perfect. But the Covenant is further along in this conversation than many evangelical denominations.
At the heart, the Covenant is a family. And families talk about difficult issues. They work through conflicts. They don’t write each other off. Which brings me back to the beginning.
When our family first walked through the doors of a Covenant church—we received a warm welcome from an evangelical community that loved Jesus, the Bible, and their neighbors. They were God’s friends—and anyone who walked in the door became a friend as well and a member of the family. There was always room. And more than enough grace to go around. We need that kind of evangelical movement now more than ever.
So let us make room in our churches and our hearts for our neighbors. And like good evangelicals, let us invite them to experience the grace of God, found in these words from the Covenant Book of Worship:
“Come to this sacred table, not because you must, but because you may; come not to testify that you are righteous, but that you sincerely love the Lord Jesus Christ and desire to be his true disciples; come not because you are strong but because you are weak; not because you have any claim on the grace of Christ but because of your frailty and sin you stand in constant need of his mercy and help; come not to express an opinion, but to seek his presence and pray for his Spirit.”