What is “Evangelical”?

I fear I’m really wandering off my topic here, but maybe I can tie this back in somehow. In my continued reading about Protestant theology, I’ve really been struggling with the definition of the term “evangelical.” This seems relevant to understanding where I’ve come from and consequently who and where I am now.

Certainly the word evangelical itself, taken to its roots, has a pretty basic meaning. It originates from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον (evangelion), which stems from ευ (“good”) + ἀγγέλλω (“bear news”). The εὐαγγέλιον is the message being borne, the “good news” — in Christian usage, the Gospel of Christ. An evangelist is someone who bears the Gospel, and in Catholic circles usually refers to the four authors of the biblical Gospels, Ss. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So evangelical literally means “of, pertaining to, or conveying good news (the gospel).”

So, according to that definition, it would seem that all Christianity is evangelical. But that’s not the way the word is used in our culture. “Evangelical” is a label that, especially in the U.S. South, seems to encompass the majority of Protestants, especially where I’m coming from: Baptists, Pentecostals, and most non-denominational Christians. The churches that seemed to be excluded were more “high church” denominations, such as Catholics, Episcopals (Anglicans), and possibly Methodists.

So what is “evangelical”? Do these “evangelical” churches bear any more “good news” than anybody else? How was this word being used? I reckoned in some of my reading that people were using “evangelical” Protestantism as simply the opposite of “mainline” Protestantism. But “mainline” is just as amorphous and undescriptive as “evangelical.” What is it that qualitatively defines “evangelicalism”?

Naturally, I turned to the font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, which provided a very capable and informative article on evangelicalism, and even better, linked me to an authoritative source: a report from the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals on “Defining Evangelicalism.” According to the document:

In the English-speaking world . . . the modern term usually describes the religious movements and denominations which sprung forth from a series of revivals that swept the North Atlantic Anglo-American world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Key figures associated with these revivals included the itinerant English evangelist George Whitefield (1715-1770); the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791); and American philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). These revivals were particularly responsible for the rise of the Baptists and Methodists from obscure sects to their traditional position as America’s two largest Protestant denominational families.

This is toward the definition I was inclined toward as an American historian: that brand of Christianity that first emerged out of the First and Second Great Awakening, in contrast to the dominant Puritanism and Anglicanism of the day. So what, qualitatively, defines evangelicalism? The document above, citing historian David Bebbington, defines four characteristics:

  1. The need for personal conversion experiences (or being “born again”)
  2. The centrality of the Bible as the authoritative, written Word of God
  3. An emphasis on Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection as the way to salvation
  4. An imperative toward active, outgoing evangelism through the Gospel

Reading this, my initial reaction is, “No duh.” All four of these seem no-brainers to me, the sine quas non that define Christianity to my as-yet evangelical brain. Until coming to the Catholic Church, I had never been a part of a church that didn’t adhere to these four tenets. Without any one of these, a church of my evangelical youth would have seemed to be lacking something essential. These certainly provide a good, sturdy definition.

I still don’t know who is evangelical. And asking, “Is your church evangelical?” hasn’t so far gotten the response I’m looking for. I asked a Reformed friend and fellow classicist, and he responded, “Of course we believe in the Gospel!” How do people “get saved” in different churches? The presence of a personal conversion experience seems to be the most visible mark of evangelicalism. Southern Baptists are evangelical; Pentecostals are evangelical; what about Methodists? I know historically, Methodists have been evangelical — but according to the wiki, United Methodists are considered mainline. Now, what the heck is “mainline,” besides “not evangelical”? This again, seems a term searching for a definition.


Since I’ve been on this road, I’ve been reluctant to use the term “conversion” in referring to my becoming Catholic, since in common parlance, “to convert” connotes a changing of form or character:

con·vert (kən-vûrt´) v. con·vert·ed, con·vert·ing, con·verts v.tr.
1. To change (something) into another form, substance, state, or product; transform: convert water into ice.
2. To change (something) from one use, function, or purpose to another; adapt to a new or different purpose.
3. To persuade or induce to adopt a particular religion, faith, or belief.
. . .
[convert. (n.d.) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003). Retrieved October 9 2011 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/convert]

And I’ve insisted that I’m not changing form or character, or even changing faiths; I am continuing as what I’ve been all along, a Christian. In many ways, though not formally initiated, I’ve been outwardly and inwardly a Catholic Christian for a while now. I’ve preferred to say that “I’m joining the Catholic Church” rather than “I’m converting to Catholicism.” “Conversion” is a scary word; somehow it feels that if I “convert,” I will no longer be what I was before.

Though the majority around me doesn’t think in such terms, I know, I have always seen through the English to the Latin root: converto — I turn around or turn towards a new direction. I want people to see that my conversion is not a change of character, but merely a reorientation.

Last night, I read at length in the Catechism about the sacraments of penance and reconciliation. I was surprised to read of a “second conversion” — the ongoing process of a baptized Christian in growing towards holiness and eternal life — something that I’ve never heard referred to in any Protestant circle. Sure, I’ve heard of “discipleship” and “maturing spiritually,” but generally the evangelical attitude seems to be, “Poof! You’re a Christian! Now live like a Christian!” My ongoing struggle with sin, even though I was supposed to be a Christian, has been a constant source of trouble and confusion in my life. The Cathechism:

Christ’s call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, “clasping sinners to her bosom, [is] at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] always follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.” This endeavor of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a “contrite heart,” drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first. [Cathechism of the Catholic Church, 1428]

Another name of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation is the sacrament of conversion. It is the process not only by which sinners are reconciled to God and the Church, but through which we are inwardly healed and changed; through which we turn away from sin and toward God:

Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. [Catechism, 1431]

I want to be converted, in my whole being. Even more than converting — reorienting — toward the Catholic Church, I want to turn toward God.

The Catholic Church, through its sacrament of reconciliation, understands the need for this continuing conversion in Christians, and how it is effected. I know I have heard some Protestants, the wise ones, acknowledge that growing in Christ is a process; they surely recognize, by experience, what isn’t formally taught in evangelical churches, but should be. So much of my youth was spent in agony, needing to confess and be reconciled, but instead making the same mistakes again and again, never growing, never converting, until I became calloused and complacent.

Today at Mass, as if to confirm this was a lesson I needed to pay attention to and take to heart, Deacon Ted spoke about this ongoing conversion in his homily.