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What is an Evangelical Church, Evangelical Christian?

Updated on April 6, 2015
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Chris spent 50 years in the Evangelical world as a layman, as a student at a prominent Christian University and as a missionary and pastor.

What is an Evangelical Christian?

This article discusses what an evangelical Christian is, when and where Evangelicalism began and who have been key developers of modern Evangelicalism. This is the first of three articles on the topic.

Source

What is an Evangelical?

In the realm of religion today, the word Evangelical is a word that is not understood by many. What is an Evangelical? I use the word constantly in my hubs. I think I have a grasp of its meaning simply because for many years, I was an evangelical myself as a layman, pastor and missionary. In three separate hubs, I would like to cover three aspects of Evangelicalism: History, Theology, Mission. As a result of reading these hubs, I want readers to be able to describe where the Evangelical movement came from, what Evangelicals believe and what they are up to in the world.

A Definition of Evangelical Christian

I will begin this series of articles with a basic definition of the term, Evangelical Christian.

Evangelical Christians believe the Bible is the sole source of reliable information about the relationship that exists between God and man as well as the relationship God wants to have with man. They believe that Jesus Christ was God in human form who died as a substitute for men and rose physically from the dead. They believe that Jesus exists today in heaven as a member of the Trinity, One God in three persons. Their mission is to reach every human being possible with the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Evangelical Christians believe that someday Jesus Christ will return to gather all Christians from all time and take them to heaven.
There is so much more involved, but that is a good beginning.

Martin Luther at the Wittenburg Door
Martin Luther at the Wittenburg Door | Source

Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism by George Marsden

Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism
Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism

In this historical overview of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism, Marsden provides an introduction to the growing religious movements and a deeper analysis of two themes that have been especially prominent and controversial in these traditions—views of science and views of politics.

 

Where Evangelicalism Came From

Following the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, protestantism itself broke into various theological camps which have become known as protestant denominations. The politiacization of these groups and of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the wars between them all, comprise the bulk of European history from the 16th through the 19th centuries. Protestantism began to be divided into theologically liberal and conservative branches.

The Conservative branch, by the early 20th century, was being called Fundamentalism. This movement was defined by its anti Roman Catholic stance, an unwavering commitment to the authority of the Bible as the Word of God and a total dedication to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over individual believers and the Church as a whole.

Fundamentalism, although not known by this term at the time, spread across North America in the form of the Great Awakenings of the 18 and 19 centuries. Fundamentalism was the predecessor and progenitor of Evangelicalism.

In the early 20th century, many within the Fundamentalist ranks became uncomfortable with the radical stance of the movement. While Fundamentalism was single minded and unbending on theological and social issues, these dissatisfied members were more tolerant of varying interpretations of Scripture on some theological issues such as views of the Last Days described in the book of Revelation.

During the first half of the 20th century, Fundamentalism gradually divided into conservative and moderate branches. The moderate branch has become known as Evangelical Christianity. The lines are still blurred between the two, but tolerance for divergent interpretations of the Bible seems to be the primary difference.


Evangelicalism From the 18th Century to the Present

The following table contains lists of influential people and institutions from the 18th century to the present. This is my own list of favorites and only represents the many individuals who participated in this phase of Church history.

Prominent Fundamentalists/Evangelicals From the 18th Century to the Present

Early Fundamentalists-18th-19th centuries
Early Evangelicals-20th century
Current Evangelical Leaders
Influential Evangelical Institutions
John Wesley 1703-1791
The Reverend Billy Graham-born 1918
History will have to separate the popular from the truly important
Columbia International University-Columbia, South Carolina
George Whitefield 1714-1770
Dr. Francis Schaeffer 1912-1984
William and Franklin Graham
Dallas Theological Seminary-Dallas, Texas
Jonathan Edwards 1703-1758
F.F. Bruce 1910-1990
Rick Warren
Wheaton College and Graduate School-Chicago, Illinois
Charles G. Finney 1792-1875
Carl F. H. Henry 1913-2003
J. Robertson McQuilkin
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School-Deerfield, Illinois
Charles H. Spurgeon 1834-1892
Ralph Winter 1924-2009
Bill Hybels
L'Abri Fellowship International-Huémoz Switzerland
William Booth 1829-1912
J. Robertson McQuilkin 1929
J.I. Packer 1926-
Fuller Theological Seminary-Pasadena, California
Dwight L. Moody 1837-1899
C.S. Lewis 1898-1963
Mark Noll 1946-
 
 
Harold Ockenga 1905-1985
 
 

Evangelicals in the Second Half of the 20th Century

Evangelicals in the second half of the 20th century were focused on world evangelization. "The Unreached" was a popular term for the population of the world which did not have a real opportunity to hear the Christian Gospel. Mission organizations spread around the globe, into every culture, for the purpose of establishing viable, indigenous, evangelical bases.

At home, evangelicals became more and more interested in the political arena as a means of effecting social change. Evangelicals formed organizations to promote the Pro-Life, pro marriage and anti homosexual agendas. The small, local church began to disappear while, one by one, mega churches appeared across the country.

The Next Evangelicalism by Pastor Soong-Chan Rah

Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism
Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism

2010 Golden Canon Leadership Book Award winner! In this book professor and pastor Soong-Chan Rah calls the North American church to escape its captivity to Western cultural trappings and to embrace a new evangelicalism that is diverse and multiethnic. Rah brings keen analysis to the limitations of American Christianity and shows how captivity to Western individualism and materialism has played itself out in megachurches and emergent churches alike.

 

Evangelicals Today

Twenty-first century evangelicalism in America is focused primarily on a multifaceted political agenda which seems to be constantly expanding. Every political issue has an evangelical viewpoint as well as the traditional liberal and conservative viewpoints. Politicians are vetted according to an evangelical Christian template. The Christian Right has become an enormous political force which politicians at all levels must consider.

Another contemporary evangelical development is the "Mega-Church". As smaller churches close their doors, Christians are finding their way to rapidly growing churches which have some common characteristics including the following:

  1. Professional quality music program
  2. Energetic, entertaining pastor
  3. Fast paced worship service
  4. Advanced use of multi media
  5. Programs for everyone in the family
  6. Informal atmosphere
  7. Constant emphasis on growth/change
  8. Entertaining, easy to follow sermons

Willow Creek Community Church of South Barrington, IL, is the pace setter, template, icon for mega churches across North America. http://www.willowcreek.org/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willow_Creek_Community_Church

Willow Creek Community Church: the prototype mega church

Source

Willow Creek Community Church/Chicago Featuring Hillsong United - 2009

Rediscovering Church by Lynne and Bill Hybels

Rediscovering Church
Rediscovering Church

Rediscovering Church is the candid story of Willow Creek Community Church's phenomenal growth, from 100 members meeting in a Palatine, Illinois, movie theater to its present Sunday morning attendance of 15,000. Bill Hybels and his wife, Lynne, tell about Willow Creek's beginnings, its struggles, the philosophy behind its success, and the strategies that have made it a model for church growth.

 

Constant Change

Since its official beginning in the 4th century Roman Empire, the Church has continually evolved. Institutions often seem static and stale, but the living organism of the Church is in a process of constant change. As its contemporary observers, Evangelicalism today seems to us to be mired in politics and has lost its focus on change by means of transformed hearts. But history tells us that any state of the Church is temporary. Already there must be "Spiritual Entrepreneurs" grinding out new ideas, new uses, new methods for the Church of tomorrow.

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    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 5 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      Ericdierker, you are so right about the lack of definition. Evangelical, evangelize and related words come from the greek euangelion which is often translated "Gospel." As a tag for contemporary, conservative Christianity, it really is developing its own definition. Doctrines, positions on moral issues and political involvement seem to be the defining characteristics. Thank you for returning to my hub. I consider a second visit very complimentary.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      This wonderful hub has me visiting again, thank you. This time I was intrigued by the lack of a definition of evangelical. So I looked around and there is a dearth. Evangelize seems to work as "teaching the Gospel" or "Bringing to Christ".

      But to of my students told me along with my wife that I was their evangelist. A strange notion, but it clearly denoted that I had helped them learn about Christ. That is what an Evangelical should be. No be a "club member".

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 5 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      James, Thank you for taking the time to read my article and to comment. As a country, we have a lot to learn about tolerance. We don't even understand the term any longer. What it should mean is that we agree to disagree as we coexist in this great nation. Instead, one side insists that the other side gives up on their values and beliefs. I feel that the left and the religious right have a lot to learn on this subject.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for publishing this outstanding Hub. I suppose I am an Evangelical though I consider myself simply a Christian apart from Denomination. I have been to Willow Creek, and for many years attended Northland Church in Orlando. Today, I go to Moody Church in Chicago, which I love most of all churches I have been too. It is quite a drive so half the time I attend a neighborhood church of about 75 souls that I can walk to.

      William Wilberforce considered himself an Evangelical. I have written about him, and John Wesley, and DL Moody, and Missionaries.

      Evangelicals do get criticized for caring about politics, culture, and society, but hey, we have to live in this country too. And the truth is, Evangelicals, and all Christians with orthodox beliefs, are playing defense, to defend the traditional values that made America great and made it worth living in, emulating, and immigrating to on rickety boats across shark-infested waters.

      Here is how it works: The godless Marxist New Left, which hates all America has stood for, proposes some idea that will shake the foundation of Western Civilization and give God the finger, such as so-called "gay" marriage. When Evangelicals speak out and say they don't think this is a good idea because they believe it will have extremely negative consequences for our nation, THEY are branded as "divisive." But wait a minute . . . divisive? Why aren't the people who want to destroy our country the ones called divisive?

      Then they are told "don't shove your beliefs down our throats." Wait a minute . . . is that what defending traditional values that are already in place and have been for hundreds of years is? Isn't the demonic left in fact shoving their views down our throats themselves?

      Finally, the leftists will put out the "hate' card; if you disagree with me you are a hater. That is transference because you will see NO hate at the Chik Fil A or a Tea Party rally but you will see it in spades in any protest mounted by the left. They truly hate. They hate God and they hate people who love and worship God.

      What they say is never what they mean. The words "Tolerance" "Inclusiveness" "Multiculturalism" "Hate" "Divisive" do not mean what they really mean. How can this be? Well, who is the Deceiver of Man? Who is the Father of Lies"

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 5 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      I'm glad you are enjoying the articles enough to keep reading. Thanks again.

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      Kerry43 5 years ago

      I am picking them off one at a time, Chris lol. I love the topic of religion and anything spiritual... Being somewhat nocturnal I read for a couple of hours with my tea before I begin my day. Saving your Mega Churches for my next a.m. slot :)

      Kerry

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 5 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      Kerry43 the Speed Reader, That is a pretty high level of motivation in the morning. I'm impressed. Thanks for reading. I don't recall if you read the one on Mega Churches, but it would be a good one to put in this series as well. I'll leave you alone so you can read.

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      Kerry43 5 years ago

      on to part two, so interesting, thank you:)

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 5 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      Paul was tiptoeing around Deism.

    • Aj Elmore profile image

      Aj Elmore 5 years ago from Huntsville, Alabama

      Fascinating. What do you think about the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians in its dealings reason and finding God?

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 5 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      After my wife passed away I decided to give myself the opportunity to ask the questions that had been in my mind for years. It was a conscious decision, not a matter of slow backsliding. I still pray and I do attend Church with a friend in order to have an opportunity for worship. Of course I pick and choose the songs I sing, but it seems good to me.

    • Aj Elmore profile image

      Aj Elmore 5 years ago from Huntsville, Alabama

      Yes! I resubmitted my post as it is clearly an example themed in your post. (You have to love the irony in this.) Cam I have to give it to you, you are a good man. You had an opportunity to attack my ignorance yes did not, in fact you didn't even mention it. When did you loose the faith in Christ?

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 5 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      I grew up as an Evangelical Quaker if you can imagine such a thing. I went to Columbia International University (back then called Columbia Bible College and Seminary). I traveled with an evangelist by the name of Frank Gonzales throughout North America, Mexico and Guatemala for two and a half years. I also spent three months after college in Papua, New Guinea working with missionaries among some tribal folks. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Education from Columbia. I pastored a church in Michigan for seven years. It started out Quaker, but they were no more Quaker than the man in the moon. We left the Quakers and joined the Evangelical Free Church of America. I never really adopted a formal theology. I suppose Reformed would suit me. But not on every point I am sure.

      So much of my writing is tongue in cheek that I can't always tell the difference. I just would like people to think about what they believe. I don't necessarily want anyone to abandon God or the Church, but to simply think with the rational brain their God created them with.

    • Aj Elmore profile image

      Aj Elmore 5 years ago from Huntsville, Alabama

      Hahaha I love it. Cam you are going to remember me before this year is out. I assume your motivations are pure in the fact that you are teaching? What is interesting to me is all of these themes, in some terms, exist in the Old Testament where the church was falling apart and the people were not acting according to "The Law" What gets me is the Pauline Epistles (Which largely are to guide the church.) were overlooked in the most basic ways. "Do not quarrel over useless controversy." Hilarious. Obviously within scripture human beings are plagued with the "cantgetright" virus. I am not fully studied in my scripture so excuse me if I assume wrong. As far as I can tell in the scriptures Jesus and Paul were the major teachers of how to evangelize. Looking at the conduct of Paul in dealing with Gentiles we find a very gentle tone that deals with the people on their terms. I think I am moving towards the credibility of scripture in contrast to your observations and the occurrences in history. From the beginning of the Old Testament people were failing to meet what God required of them. The scripture discredits the Jews from the beginning of time obviously. Still though, all of this history after Christianity with its implications were taught within scripture and are nothing new . I think it would be a gross injustice to the scripture to define them by people, especially after people having been defined within the text. I really hope you and I start a dialogue because I disagree with almost all of your interpretations of scripture as well as agree with your observations of history and Christians. I am a unique Christian in the fact that I am shocked at the grotesque nature of man to betray reason with bias. Bias is the greatest "demon" in the human psyche. Anyway, I was just flying the seam of my pants. I look forward to talking with Mr. Cam.

      What mission work did you do?

      What church were you apart of?

      What theology did you hold too?

      Were you self taught on scripture?

      Did you come from a religious family?

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 5 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      I am about 50% done with the next hub. It deals with the beliefs of evangelicals. I hope to post it tonight.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 5 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      Ericdierker, thanks for reading and commenting. The movement by some in the mid 20th century certainly was a good move. Some might consider it divinely appointed. I don't know. But It opened up a whole new era of development for the Church, both in size and mission. I need to get started on part two of the series.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Just a marvelous article. Indeed the web of differing traditions is quite complicated and a description could fill volumes. But the good work in your article breaks it down nicely. Seems that any group that practices the notion of loving their neighbor and even their enemy, would have a hard time going wrong.

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 5 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      rdlang, The terms do overlap. Many denominational names, mission statements and statements of faith were drawn up in the first half of the twentieth century. At that time Fundamentalism was THE reaction to theological liberalism. The use of the terms evangelical and fundamental were nearly synonymous. With the passage of time, a separation came about between moderate and conservative fundamentalists. Here is a video that might help a little. http://www.godtube.com/watch/?v=90J0MCNU. Jerry Falwell said once that "A Fundamentalist is just and Evangelical who is angry about something." And here is a quote that I found which might be helpful as well.

      ?

      Rev. Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist in Chief

      'Rev. Jerry Falwell, who died today in his office at Liberty University, was no mainstream Christian. Indeed, his religious and political views were typically, as he himself described for much of his life, fundamentalist. As such he was out of step with most American Christians, including those who described themselves as evangelical. Although later in life Falwell dropped the “Baptist fundamentalism” label in favor of “evangelical,” his religious and political views remained far more fundamentalist than anything. It’s no surprise then that Falwell called Billy Graham, “the chief servant of Satan in America.”'

      I share your curiosity about the difference between the two terms. There is undoubtedly a difference between the two groups we are discussing. Theologically they are very similar. The difference is more sociological. Fundamentalists are fearful, angry and defensive toward nearly everyone. Evangelicals embrace each other across denominational boundaries. Evangelicals quite often are open to Roman Catholics, something a Fundamentalist would never do.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I hope this helps.

    • rdlang05 profile image

      rdlang05 5 years ago from Minnesota

      Very interesting hub. I think its curious that you distinguish between the conservative fundamentalism and the moderate evangelicals when, in my experience at least, very few of the conservative fundamentalist churches don't call themselves that, and rather have the word "evangelical" in their name or mission statement. Thoughts on that? Voted up.

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 5 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      Thanks HVN. This hub doesn't even begin to scratch the surface. Just a survey of a survey I'm afraid. But it is an introduction to anyone wondering. Glad you got to read it right away.

    • HeadlyvonNoggin profile image

      Jeremy Christian 5 years ago from Texas

      Good hub, Cam. The history of the various Christian religions fascinates me to no end. It's interesting to examine what humans do with new ideas and information, like the splintering of Christianity during the Protestant Reformation and everything that eventually led to. It blows my mind how effectively and efficiently humans muck things up. This hub does a good job of fleshing out this particular strain of denominations, which I always appreciate.