Well known 20th Century evangelical preacher Billy Graham was once asked to define the term ‘evangelical’. He replied, “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody too!”
As it turned out, even America’s most famous evangelical preacher, Billy Graham, couldn’t describe what the term meant!
He isn’t alone. While the word evangelical pops up in the media to describe everything from mega-churches to American voting blocs, from lively ‘happy-clappy’ churches to crazy flat earth fundamentalists, few people seem to know what exactly an evangelical is.
So What is an Evangelical?
The word evangelical comes from a Greek word meaning ‘good news’. An evangelical is someone who believes that their lives and the church should be shaped by the good news about Jesus Christ.
Evangelicalism is a movement that can be found in all sorts of different churches. You can find evangelical Baptist churches, evangelical Methodist churches, and evangelical Anglican churches, for example. You can also find churches that are not part of any denomination who simply call themselves ‘Evangelical churches’.
This means that evangelicals don’t have a single human figurehead like the Roman Catholic Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury. So you can’t just phone a central office and ask for the official definition. Since they span a range of denominations, churches, and organisations, there is no sure way to work out how many evangelicals there are in the UK. Estimates vary from 1 to 2 million. Culturally and theologically they are often quite different from many of their American cousins with the same name.
Probably the most widely accepted definition of evangelical was put forward by religious historian David Bebbington. He identifies evangelicals as Christians who share four common characteristics:
Action | Bible | Cross | Decision
Evangelicals believe that their faith should result in action. This can be seen in people like anti-slave campaigner MP William Wilberforce and social reformer Lord Shaftsbury. It’s also seen in the way evangelicals seek to share their faith with others. Evangelicals believe the good news is good news that people should hear. ‘Evangelical’ in that sense has even passed into general English, as in ‘I’m evangelical about cake!’
Evangelicals believe the Bible to be God’s message to the world and, as such, absolutely true. However they believe poetry should be read as poetry and prose as prose. They admit that a few textual mistakes have crept in over time, but believe that the original copies did not have these mistakes in. Every year new discoveries are made that get us closer to those original texts. Evangelicals also therefore emphasise personal reading of the Bible and preaching of the Bible in church meetings.
Evangelicals believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was the most important event in human history. The Bible teaches that Jesus’ death on the cross was a sacrifice that God made to deal with our treason against him- what the Bible calls ‘sin’. Jesus died so that God could forgive people of their sin. Evangelicals make a big deal of this because they believe it is our only way to enjoy a real relationship with God. This is the ‘good news’ about Jesus that Evangelicals believe.
Evangelicals believe everybody should make their own mind up what they believe. Every person has to make their own decision. The Bible teaches that we don’t get to heaven by being born into the right family or being born in a particular country or by being christened by being nice or by doing nice things. The Bible teaches we must decide to put our faith/trust in Jesus’ death on the cross. Evangelicals want everyone to know this so they can make an informed decision.
Evangelicals are a global movement that are connected by a basic set of beliefs. They sprung up in the UK at the same time as in the United States so they are not an American import and have followed quite different paths. They are across denominations, not in all in one grouping. It is forecast by research agencies (such as Brierly consultancy) that they will make up around 50% of the UK church by 2030. Evangelicalism has a bright future in the UK as well as a past of social justice and activism to be proud of.
Some Evangelicals you might have heard of:
John Bunyan (Author of Pilgrim’s Progress)
John Wesley (Founder of Methodism)
William Wilberforce (Anti-Slavery Campaigner)
Lord Shaftsbury (Social Reformer)
Billy Graham (American Evangelist)
Lord Carey (Former Archbishop of Canterbury)