A few years ago there was a young man who came to Ottawa for Graduate School. I’ll call him “Bob”. He was a non-Christian from a non-Christian family. In Ottawa, Bob met a Christian and they became friends. Eventually, Bob met a few of the Christian friends of his Christian friend, and they invited him to some events, and eventually to church. Bob showed up at Messiah one day. He started coming regularly, and somewhere along the line, became a Christian. A couple of years later Bob left Ottawa for career reasons. About a year after he left, he came to visit Ottawa and while here, attended church.
After the service, he shared how at first he had trouble finding a new church, but he did find a good church and had gotten involved. Then he surprised me by asking, “George, are you an evangelical Christian? Is Messiah an evangelical church?” He knew we were Anglican. I said, “Yes I am an evangelical, and Messiah is an evangelical church”. He replied, “Dang, in University I disliked evangelical Christians and made fun of them – and now I’ve discovered that I have become one.”
Is the word still useful?
Given all that has been happening in the U.S. over the last few years, it might be time to recognize that the word “evangelical” has lost its usefulness. The current cultural and political wars in the U.S. might have created a situation where the word “evangelical” needs to be dropped by churches like Messiah.
On one hand, my opening story shows that the word “evangelical” has had negative connotations for some people for quite a while. On the other hand, the same story also illustrates how the fact that we sometimes refer to ourselves as “evangelicals” is surprisingly unnoticed by non-Christians.
English is a living language, so the meaning of words can change over time. If you ever use the 1662 BCP, you will sometimes come across the word “prevent”. In 2021, the word “prevent” usually means “stop”. In 1662, the word “prevent” means “go before” or “precede.” We don’t usually make a fuss over this. We adapt and use words that communicate what we want to say. By the way, when we at Messiah use a Collect with the word “prevent” in it, I simply change the wording and have it say “go before”.
So, is it time to drop the word “evangelical”—not because we have changed but because the word’s meaning has changed and no longer defines us? Whatever words we use, they should still be Christian. I think that we live among the shards and ruins of Christendom. So it is even more important that we do not try to fool people. It is better to let them know up front that we are Christian. As well, I think that as our culture becomes more and more addicted to the temporary, recent, and new, it is time to stress the depths and age of our roots. What we believe and how we seek to live goes right back to Jesus in unbroken continuity.
Recently, a young man was asking me about my church Messiah and what we meant by the word “evangelical”. I said that in many ways, we are really “old protestants” or “dinosaur protestants” or “historic protestants”. As an Anglican, I am a presbyter of the English Reformation trying to live like a missionary in the new “post-Christendom” Canadian cultural reality. As a presbyter of the English Reformation, I accept such “evangelical” distinctives as: the need for personal regeneration; that the Bible is authoritative, trustworthy, and true; that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Being a child of the English Reformation also means appreciating that good and godly things have been done and written through all Christian history going right back to the Apostles. It isn’t just the Bible and then us. The biblical gospel is the judge of our 2000 year history. Not everything in Christian history is biblical, holy, and good. But the biblical gospel does not obliterate 2000 years of Christian thinking, poetry, philosophy, liturgy, hymnody, art, and theology. In Christ, we stand on the shoulders of those in Christ who have gone before us. We can appreciate what is good, godly and beautiful in what happened before this present moment.
So what “short cut” words can we use to describe ourselves? How should we describe ourselves? Can we still say that we are evangelicals or do we need a new word? We will prayerfully and (hopefully) intelligently navigate language issues as they develop. For now, I am an Anglican (‘Reformedish’) evangelical Christian. I mean “Anglican” as one who is in the mainstream of the English Reformation. Christian is the noun. I mean “Christian” as it is found in Acts 11:26. Referring to the evangelistic, discipling, preaching ministry of Paul and Barnabas, it says “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christian.”