A Modest Proposal about the E-word

the-e-wordSo, you know how it’s fashionable for companies to describe marketing specialists as evangelists? (If you didn’t, then yes, it’s a thing.) The gilded virtual hallways of LinkedIn are littered with job titles like “chief product evangelist”—supposedly describing the zeal with which they promote their company and its product.

Often the best product evangelists start out as satisfied customers. Take Apple. The advent of the iPhone transformed Apple from a profitable company with a niche audience to a market-dominating behemoth. With a combination of powerful hardware and slick design, the iPhone became the device consumers desired and designers wanted to emulate. Passionate iPhone users often became de facto product evangelists.

But then other devices—most notably, Google’s Android phones—began outpacing the iPhone in various performance metrics, including price. With each new version, Apple fans crowed about their superior new iPhones, even as they trumpeted features that were already commonplace in Android phones.

After a while, the iPhone’s reputation turned from standard-bearer to overrated, and its fans, rather than creative rebels on the cutting-edge of technology, began to sound inflexible, defensive, and even ignorant.

Now, were all Apple users behaving this way? Of course not. Most of them probably didn’t care much about getting into a culture war over whose smartphone was better. But the loudest among them ended up setting the tone for the conversation, inadvertently casting their beloved brand in a negative light because of how loyal they were and how badly they wanted to protect it.

And it occurred to me—maybe “evangelist” is the wrong word to describe these fans. Maybe it’s better to use evangelical, because it seems that the word “evangelical” has undergone a similar shift in meaning and reputation. It’s happened more gradually, but in our attempts to defend both our faith and our legal right to practice it, we have become more identified by what we are against than what we are for. And we’ve inadvertently come off as rigid, defensive, judgmental, even ignorant.

Type “evangelicals are” into Google and see what pops up in the autocomplete.

Again, have all evangelicals behaved this way? Of course not. But enough of our leaders have done so for so long, that the word has become tarnished. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, fire up a Google search engine, type in “evangelicals are” and see what pops up in the autocomplete. We who are supposed to bear the mantle of good news end up looking like racists, hypocrites, or stooges.

When Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, plenty of religious leaders pushed back, attempting to take a principled stand against someone they viewed as a self-serving charlatan. But it seems that many more chose to hold their noses and double down. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, tweeted a photo of himself with Trump. In the background was another framed picture of Trump on the cover of Playboy, a publication surely considered contraband at Liberty.

But this issue is bigger than Trump, or the American presidency, the U.S. Supreme Court, immigration, abortion, mass incarceration, or any other hot button issue. This is about how people perceive American Christians as we attempt to share the good news of Jesus Christ. When it comes to the word “evangelical,” somewhere along the way of advancing our organizations and worldview, something has gotten lost in translation.

So I think we oughta stop using it. Not stop telling the truth about Jesus, not stop praying for our communities, not cease being a visible, incarnational presence—but stop calling ourselves evangelicals. Take it out of our denominational name, and banish it from active usage.

If we’re not willing to do that (and I confess, it’s a long shot), then our top imperative should be figuring out how to reclaim it from those who make the rest of us look so bad.


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  • About 35 years ago fundamentalists took over the word “evangelical” to describe themselves because “fundamentalist” had come to be synonymous with intolerant and combative. Hence, people like Jerry Fallwell (Sr.) for instance, who had proudly proclaimed himself a fundamentalist up to that time suddenly became an evangelical. Evangelicals up to that time had been a term used to describe those who believed certain gospel fundamentals but were more tolerant. Now that the intolerant have besmirched the word “evangelical” I supposed they will have to find another term. Hopefully those who are more interested in following Jesus than playing power politics can separate themselves out from those who merely want to proclaim a Jesus who happens to fit their pre-conceived agenda so we need not all need to be painted with the same shameful brush.

  • As a retired pastor, I am finally out of the line of fire. Maybe I should have been bolder, but I wasn’t, so sue me. In any case, yeah, we need to show ‘evangelical’ to the door. I know several churches who had evangelical on the legal papers but not on the sign out front or the bulletin. A recent spate of articles, especially about how evangelicals have swallowed their theology and waddled over to Donald Trump has convinced me that when we tell people we are evangelicals, all we are doing is putting a big bull’s eye on our chest. The kind that looks like the Covenant Logo.

  • Jelani, I am with you all the way to the next Annual Meeting! It’s not a long shot.

    Why should we be afraid that dropping “Evangelical” will somehow change who we are, what we believe, or how we live out our faith? Many will see it as courageous and positive.

    This will not be our first “re-branding” since we were established as the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant of America.

    My great grandfather emigrated from Sweden to become one of the first Covenant pastors. Swedish describes a much loved heritage (and our rebellious roots) for my family and many others but it no longer defines us or thankfully limits who may (or may not) feel welcome to walk through our doors and become part of our family.

    “Swedish” disappeared in 1954 – wouldn’t that have been a great debate to witness?

    And, what about “Mission” and “…of America”?

    I find myself immediately dismissing our name when describing our denomination to others, ”But we’re not like “those” evangelicals, really, we’re not…because we believe in Jesus’s message of compassion, mercy, and justice.“

    We are not likely to succeed in returning the definition of evangelical to its roots in the minds of most Americans or the world. Instead, let’s take that same evangelical fervor, energy, time, and effort to become the people of a denomination that daily and dramatically lives out the words of the prophet Amos, so powerfully translated by Eugene Petersen,

    Amos 5:21 – 24 The Message
    “I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
    I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
    I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
    I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?
    Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
    I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”

    That’s all I want, too.

    Thanks, Jelani, for your courage, your words, and your faith. May we all become evangelists.

    Next year in Detroit!

  • Reclaiming words we are used to is a good idea if you can do it, but I don’t think that will happen on this one. Fundamentalist was a good word until it wasn’t. It used to mean you held to basic historic Christian truth. Not any more. As the pastor of a small Covenant church, questions like what the denomination should be called are above my pay grade. But I know I can’t use “evangelical” anymore and expect to be understood.

  • Some years ago while studying at Fuller Theological Seminary I worked on staff for a year or so. One time I was sent to Federal Express or some similar location to pick up a package that had problems of some sort. It turned out the package had been addressed to “Fuller Technical Services.” For whoever addressed the package it seems that these special words “theological” and “seminary” were incomprehensible and completely outside of his/her world view. The closest they could come to it was “technical services.” My only point is that a word can be perfectly good but be misunderstood by the receptor.

    Mr. Greenidge has a good point. I can’t support removing “evangelical” from our denominational name, but he does give us another way – to reclaim the word. I would add there is no harm in explaining what we do in other ways, using other words. For example, when a secular friend asked me what kinds of classes I took at Fuller Seminary (again, a long time ago) if I answered “Systematic Theology” then that sort of ended things. But if I said I’m taking a class on “Life, the Universe, and Everything” then that opened up the conversation. So yes, there must be an ongoing re-translation of what we say and do. But still telling people about Jesus, as Mr. Greenidge affirms.

    • If I’d been there to hear you describe your class on “Life, the Universe and Everything,” I’d have sidled up next to you and whispered,

      “Hey man you didn’t hear this from me, but uhh… in case they don’t tell you, the answer is 42.”

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