Today the term “evangelical” has lost most of it’s meaning.
Reporters and Pollsters use the term interchangeably with fundamentalist.
Many fundamentalists lump true evangelicals with liberals.
However, historically those are three different positions.
In order to identify what an evangelical is (was), let’s take at a quick, admittedly simplistic, overview of 100 years in American Protestanitism:
Religious Liberalism: In the late 1800s many American church leaders began to adopt theological positions that were inconsistent with historic Christian beliefs. Among the theological positions which they abandoned were the authority of scripture and the divinity of Jesus. One liberal leader was very clear “we are changing, they (traditionalists) are not.” These church leaders were categorized as theological liberals. Many (certainly not all) “mainline” protestant congregations became theologically liberal by the early 20th century.
Christian Fundamentalism: In the 1920s and 1930s many of those who held to historic Christian beliefs found themselves increasingly at odds with mainline religions … and main stream culture. Fundamentalists reacted by removing themselves from culture in order to stay “pure.” In addition to isolationism, fundamentalists also reacted by rejecting areas of life not clearly connected with their religious framework. Areas that were rejected included the arts, science, academia, and social justice. Fundamentalist also narrowed the definition of “true believers” by placing additional beliefs as core to their faith.
Neo-Evangelicals: Out of this context emerged the neo-evangelicals in the 1940s and 1950s. These were people who held to the core historic beliefs of Christianity and believed that thoughtful cultural engagement was a clear application of those beliefs. Unlike Religious Liberals, the neo-evangelicals held the convictions of: 1. Authority of Scripture and 2. Lordship of Jesus. Unlike the Christian Fundamentalists, the neo-evangelicals: 1. Held to other beliefs but did not place them as essential for true faith. 2. Believed that their core beliefs drive believers to to engage in culture. 3. Believed that their core beliefs compel believers to explore truth, beauty, and justice in all areas of life.
I realize that this post might be like blowing into a strong gust of wind. There may be no use in trying to rescue the term evangelical.
The real shame is not that we have lost a term. The danger is that we would lose that type of movement.
We need Christians who believe and follow Jesus well enough to be thoughtfully and gracefully engage the world.