Evangelicalism (meaning “good message”) first began during the Great Awakenings’ revival. People wanted to strip away religious technicalities and traditions and focus on the cores: salvation and a personal relationship with Christ. In reality, most Christians fit under the broad umbrella of evangelicalism, but I’m going to talk about the group that usually self-identifies as evangelical and rose as a movement in the mid-twentieth century, fitting somewhere in between mainstream Protestantism and fundamentalism. Today, Evangelicals make up the majority of Christians in the U.S. with an estimated count of 70-80 million.
Evangelicals believe in the prime authority of the Bible, the Great Commission (sharing your faith with as many as possible), and that you must have a “born again” experience where you without a doubt accept Christ into your heart.
I live in the Bible Belt. There are a lot of Pentecostals and evangelicals. As I mentioned last week, the Pentecostal style of worship is foreign to me as I just haven’t had a lot of experience with Pentecostals. Evangelicals are another story. Their very name indicates that they believe in confronting you, talking to you, convincing you to convert. I think it’s admirable they are so open and enthused about their faith. It’s done with the best of intentions; they don’t want you to burn in hell. But my experiences have usually left me very uncomfortable. It’s a very extroverted form of Christianity, and I’m a pretty big introvert (as if you couldn’t tell).
Have you been saved? I got asked this quite a bit in school. My Presbyterian and Lutheran friends would either 1. not even know they were talking about religion and respond “from what?” looking around for a danger or 2. be familiar with the phrase and give smart aleck responses such as “Yeah, 2,000 years ago” which apparently is an unsatisfactory answer. Now I just say yes; it’s true of course, whether the two of us are using the same “born again” terminology or not.
Evangelicals have a language and a culture all their own. But they don’t isolate themselves from everyone else. Many believe liberal Protestants adapt to the secular culture and fundamentalists avoid contact with secular culture, while evangelicals try to change the culture to match their biblical beliefs. It was evangelicals who created the marketing idea of the Christian Right, which has dominated conservative politics for the past 30 years. While I admire letting your beliefs guide your decisions, I don’t like the merging of church and state in such a way as the Christian Right has. Suddenly liberal Christians and conservatives of other faiths are pushed out of the political sphere to create a “right us” versus “wrong them” catfight.
In continuing with this idea of working in but not of the secular culture, evangelical services are typically known for their worship/praise bands and use of multimedia. I’ve always gotten the impression that evangelicals want people to think it’s hip to be Christian, that Jesus was this awesome guy you should want to hang out with. Theologically, I don’t have much of a problem, though I think a little more reverence for Jesus would be nice. My issue is about presentation. I understand that if it’s important to you to attract as many believers as possible, then advertising is going to come into play. But people shouldn’t go to church because it’s the cool place to be; they should go because it’s the right place to be. I’m sure some people are attracted for the wrong reasons and stay for the right ones, but does that justify the wrong reasons to begin with? Are we supposed to trick people to church? By trying to be so pop culturally relevant, I can’t see the difference in them selling Jesus and MTV selling Jersey Shore. And what happens to that person’s faith when the Jesus fad wears out and they look for the next cool thing? Suddenly the church has the burden of always being on the cutting edge of coolness in order to keep members.
I think the best way to evangelize is being a good Christian. Loving your neighbor, striving for virtue, confessing your sins and learning to do better, helping the poor, living the same on Saturday night as you do on Sunday morning. You know, all the hard stuff. The people you touch will see the joy you have in living that way and be drawn to that joy. We’re still kids that learn best from imitation.
[The fish is an old symbol for the Christian faith, but today, you're most likely to see it on the back of an evangelical's car. That's why I decided to use it to represent this movement, which again, is so broad, there isn't really one symbol to represent it.]