Black and white believers who are like-minded in theological belief are not of one mind about the term evangelical.

It could be called the “e word” in most black churches—a term either unknown and unused, or so loaded with negative connotations it is handled delicately or avoided altogether. The word: evangelical. And to the surprise of many Christians who pride themselves on the label, the baggage carried by evangelical can form a barrier to fellowship with minority believers who otherwise share their beliefs.

“What [evangelical] stands for theologically is where most blacks in traditional churches would be,” said Clarence Hilliard, pastor of the Austin Corinthian Baptist Church near Chicago. “But most are not familiar with the term. They talk about being ‘born again’ and ‘Bible believing.’ ” Where the term evangelical is used, there is often “a lot of explaining to do,” said Hilliard, who is also first vice-president of the National Black Evangelical Association (NBEA).

The problem arises with the cultural and political positions commonly associated with evangelicals—conservative, right-wing, Republican. Right or wrong, the black community’s perceptions of evangelicalism inevitably include Jerry Falwell’s statements on South Africa and evangelicals’ embrace of the Reagan administration, which most minorities denounced as woefully inattentive to social-justice issues, black leaders say. So even those willing to use the term explain it carefully.

“I am an evangelical,” said Melvin Banks of Urban Ministries, Inc., in Chicago. “But the term can be divisive in the black church, and I try to make clear when I say that, I am talking about the supremacy of Jesus and his work on the cross for salvation—not the other issues.”

“If white ...

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