I’m an evangelical – but sometimes I’m reluctant to own up. I’m not alone – in a survey conducted for Premier Radio and the Evangelical Alliance 87% of the sample describe themselves as evangelical but only 59% reveal their ‘evangelical’ identity to others (News page 8). Not that we’re ashamed of the gospel of the Lord Jesus or being identified as Christians, it’s just the ‘evangelical’ tag that we sometimes struggle with.
Half a century ago words like ‘gay’, ‘ecstasy’ and ‘wicked’ meant something very different than they do today. In the past ‘evangelical’ stood for four key values: * a commitment to the authority and centrality of scripture, * a call to personal faith and repentance, * the centrality of Christ’s death as our substitute, * putting faith into action through evangelism and social action. Now to the unchurched and people of other faiths – evangelical is increasingly shorthand for: right-wing US politics, an arrogant loud mouth who refuses to listen to other people’s opinions, men in grey suits who attempt to crowbar authorised version scripture verses into every situation, or ‘happy-clappy’ simpletons who gullibly swallow whatever their tub thumping minister tells them to believe. Large parts of the British media seem happy to paint evangelicals into that stereotype. Today in the UK ‘evangelical’ is often linked with the ultimate 21st century swearword ‘fundamentalist’. The result is the name ‘evangelical’ which years ago, may have smelt of roses – now has the aroma of the manure that fertilises the bush.
What to do? I’ve spoken to Joel Edwards who heads up Evangelical Alliance, a man I really respect and admire. He argues that we need to rehabilitate the word, that ‘evangelical’ is too rich and precious a word to drop. But I worry that the tide has gone out on the ‘e’ word. I still stand by the historic values that evangelicalism was built on, I’m not going soft on the four ‘e’ principles listed earlier. But I’m tired of being tarred with the identities of men with megaphones who shout ‘hell’, ‘wrath’ and ‘damnation’ at passers-by and fail to say, ‘love’, ‘grace’ or ‘forgiveness’. I’m tired of being tarred with the identities of the ‘anti-everything’ brigade – who angrily list the things they are against and claim to speak for ‘evangelicals’, but actually have a tiny support base. And I’m tired of being tarred with US right wing foreign policy.
People within might understand, but what about those outside the church? Isn’t it time to choose a new word that sums up our e-identity and commitment to following Jesus but puts distance between us and the damaging negatives?
The non-uniformed evangelical Christian youth organisation Crusaders is about to be renamed. The word ‘Crusaders’ is loaded with many negative connotations. Some of the original Crusaders had pure hearts and attempted to reintroduce Christianity to Jerusalem, but the treacherous and bloodthirsty deeds of other Crusaders has left an ugly stain. More recent historic events and the way many Muslims regard George Bush as a modern day Crusader – has invested the name with militaristic overtones that bear no resemblance to the values and the practice of the Christian organisation of the same name. Crusaders are not dumping their values – but they are ditching a tag that hinders rather than helps. I applaud their national director Matt Summerfield for championing this name change – it’s just a shame that previous leaders of Crusaders didn’t change it decades ago! Many churches and organisations with the 'e' word in their title brand are changing - what about you?John Buckeridge is the editor of Christianity magazine