Evangelicals are in the news! Donald Trump recently met with Evangelical leaders. I have seen so many articles about Evangelicals and politics these past few weeks. Some signaling the demise of evangelicalism. Some talking about the decline of evangelical influence.
What in the world is an Evangelical, anyway?
So we are Evangelical. But what does that mean? Why are we Evangelical?
If we go by what we hear in the world out there, we can wonder “Is being Evangelical a good thing or a bad thing?” Obviously we at Faith Church wouldn’t use the word unless we thought it was a good thing, a biblical thing, a word that would be helpful to the mission of God’s Kingdom.
So the first way to answer these questions is to go back to our historical denominational connection. Our denomination’s name is “The Evangelical Congregational Church.”
Right around the year 1800 a man named Jacob Albright from Ephrata PA started preaching about Jesus to the German-speaking people, mostly farmers, here in Lancaster County. God used him mightily and he launched a number of house churches based on the Methodist model because he was discipled and licensed to preach by the Methodist Church. This group of house churches took the name Evangelical Association (EA). Albright passed away when the EA was still young, but he and the first leaders laid a foundation for expansion, and expand it did. Across the country and to many places around the world.
But sadly, the Evangelical Association had growing pains, a big split, then a merger, and eventually, a bunch of the churches trying to be faithful to Albright’s original vision created a new denomination called the Evangelical Congregational Church (EC) in 1922.
Most of our EC churches are in Eastern PA, but we have some in Western PA, Ohio, Illinois and a spattering of other places. Our headquarters in based in Myerstown, Lebanon County, where we have the denominational offices, then across the street the seminary, and across the street the other way, the retirement community. Drive up Route 501 through Myerstown and you’ll drive right by all these places.
In the late 1960s one the oldest and largest Evangelical Congregational churches at the time, Grace EC Church in the city of Lancaster, on the corner of South Shippen and Locust streets, had a bunch of people driving into town from the East Lampeter area. So their pastor David Heil had a vision to start a new church plant out this way, and that’s how Faith Church got started in 1968. We will celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2018. It was, therefore, the Evangelical Congregational Church that started us. We are and have always been a part of the EC Church.
That is the first reason why we have the word “Evangelical” in our name and on our sign.
But is that important? In 1968 it was really important because the name “Evangelical” meant something important, and most people in the community knew what it meant and they understood it to be a good thing.
What did they actually understand? What does it mean to be evangelical? Why don’t we just call ourselves Christians? To answer that, we need to go way back before 1968 to learn what the word “evangelical” means.
The word “evangelical” is a word straight out of the Bible. It is actually an English transliteration of one of the Greek words that was used to write the New Testament. The word evangelical is the Greek word euangelion. See how similar they look?
In Greek euangelion is the Good News, and in particular it carries the idea of proclaiming the good news. It was not specifically a word about Jesus or the Bible. It was used, for example, to describe the birth of the new Roman Caesar, the emperor. “Good News! A new leader has been born.” The Caesars, the emperors, wanted their people to believe that they were God in the flesh, they wanted people to worship them and they wanted people to proclaim them as savior. The emporer wanted the people to use the word euangelion about them. Good News! Caesar is born, Caesar is God, and Caesar is Lord.
When the New Testament writers started using this concept about Jesus, they were making a big statement: there is other good news, there is another savior, there is another Lord.
So the focus of euangelion, or to use the English, evangelism, was to proclaim the Good news about Jesus!
When you read the English word “Gospel” which is found in the New Testament writings quite often, you are reading the Greek word “euangelion”. For example Paul says in Romans 1:16:
I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes.
That focus is very important to remember! There is Good News! Evangelism pointed to a very good thing. Evangelism was the act of proclaiming the good news about Jesus. When you think of evangelicals, then, we are people who speak about Good News.
So why is there an Evangelical church? Shouldn’t there just be a Christian church? Aren’t all Christians supposed to proclaiming this Good News?
Well, a few centuries ago, a number of Christians felt that the mission of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus as the Savior had been lost in the institutional approach Christians had been using for church. So some Christians and churches started to promote the idea that we Christians need to get back to the wonderful task of proclaiming good news. Because of their focus on proclaiming the Good News, they became known as the Evangelicals.
That was Jacob Albright’s focus. Remember that he wanted to preach the Good News to the German-speaking farmers in this area? They were all church people. But the churches they attended focused more on the institution of the church rather than on the Good News. Albright himself had always gone to church but he had never heard the Good News. After hearing the Good News from a traveling evangelist himself, and after deciding to follow Jesus, Albright had a passion that his fellow German-speaking Lancastrians would know the good news of Jesus too. Albright became a traveling evangelist, literally riding on horseback from town to town, from house church to house church, and many people heard the Good News.
Thus the Evangelical movement started. It featured revival meetings, camp meetings, and so on. As the years went by, house churches got organized, and as house churches grew they built church buildings and started denominations. Albright wasn’t the only one. There are many evangelical denominations: Evangelical Lutherans, Evangelical Free, and many more that don’t have the word “Evangelical” in their name.
There are some beliefs that we have that are uniquely evangelical, ones that we feel are quite important and good. That takes us into understanding more about the uniqueness of the evangelical movement.
The National Association of Evangelicals, on their website, says that evangelicals usually hold to these four things:
- Conversion & Discipleship: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus
- Outreach: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
- The Bible: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
- Cross & Resurrection: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, and his victory over sin and death, making possible the redemption of humanity
This explains what Evangelicals believe the Bible teaches about God’s Good News for humanity. So why would we want to change our sign? It’s sounding like the word “evangelical” is a very good thing.
Here’s the problem. In 1968 when Grace Evangelical Congregational Church planted a new daughter church in East Lampeter, the surrounding culture thought of Evangelicals in a good light. Fast-forward 50 years. When people in our society now think of the word “evangelical” what comes to their mind?
One way to learn is to search for the word “evangelical” on Google. The results are very interesting.
Based on that history I just told you, if you google “Evangelical”, there should be something about Good News, wouldn’t you think? There should be something about how God loves the world so much. There might be our favorite evangelical Bible verse, John 3:16: For God so loved the World! That is awesome Good News.
But when we Google “Opinions of Evangelicals”, there is a surprising result. Take a look right now. See for yourselves. What are some of the results?
Any images of Good News? No.
Instead we get images of politicians. And furthermore when you talk with people what the term “evangelical” means to them, you get a wide range of mostly negative responses. Evangelicalism has become mixed up with politics. Evangelicals are considered to be a voting bloc, and people have the impression that evangelicals are Republicans who are against so many issues, rather than for the Good News.
One evangelical scholar recently said this: “Due to the secular media’s ongoing misguided and misleading effort to define “evangelical” as a political posture, people are naturally confused when they discover that I am a lifelong, “card carrying” evangelical. The National Association of Evangelicals adamantly rejects any identification of “evangelical” with a particular political ideology or even posture. Historically and theologically that is correct—even if most people in the United States who identify themselves to pollsters as “evangelical” also identify as conservative Republicans.”
When people think of the word “evangelical” they are not excited about Good News.
One Faith Church family tells the story about the first time they came to Faith Church. My wife Michelle had invited them to the final night of VBS when we had a community Fun Fair. That year Turkey Hill sponsored the Fun Fair and placed one of their huge Turkey Hill cows our church property’s front lawn, blocking the view of the church sign. The family had a great time, and Michelle invited them to return to church that Sunday morning. So on Sunday they pulled up, the cow was gone, and they saw the words “Faith EVANGELICAL Congregational Church” on the sign. The impression they had of the word “Evangelical” was so negative that they almost turned right around in the parking lot and left. But to keep a promise, they decided to stay. And in the past eight years they have found Faith Church to be very different evangelicals indeed!
Think about that with me for a minute. How many people see the word “Evangelical” on our church sign, get the wrong impression and just turn around and leave? How many people in the community driving by every day see that word on our sign and assume that we are just like the evangelicals they have heard about in the news? I don’t blame them. The news is full of stories of evangelicals behaving badly.
I suspect it is very possible that people don’t think of Good News when they read our sign. They don’t look at our sign and think “that must be a church focusing on good news”. How could they? Many in our community have never been told about the connection between the word “evangelical” and the Good News.
That word “evangelical” on our sign, then, can become a blockade to the Good News! While we remain committed to proclaiming that there is Good News in Jesus, because the impression of the word “evangelical” has become so confused in our society in the past 50 years, having the word on our sign has made it more difficult for us to proclaim Good News to those in our community who so desperately need to hear Good News!
By keeping the word “evangelical” on our sign we are making it much harder for ourselves. Unnecessarily harder!
We are not on the mission of getting people to like the word “evangelical”. We want people to become disciples of Jesus!
So our Leadership Team has talked about this, and we decided to remove the tagline from our sign.
But hear this, we’re not changing our name. We’re just not including the tag line on the sign so that the word “Evangelical” is not a deterrent. We are not changing the name of our church, we are not changing our affiliation with our denomination, and we are absolutely not changing our commitment to the Good News. Our desire to remove the word “Evangelical” from the sign is actually based in our commitment to sharing the Good News. We don’t want to place unnecessary deterrents blockading our ability to proclaim the Good News. By removing the word “evangelical” from our sign, we are strengthening our ability to share the Good News.
It is a reminder for all of us to consider how evangelical we are. Are Good News people? Or are we political evangelicals?
What does it look like to be people of Good news?
What will it look like for you to be a Good News person?
Do the people in your life know that you are a disciple of Jesus who is living and proclaiming Good News?