This past spring, John Buckeridge, editor of the U.K. magazine Christianity, struck a nerve among many evangelicals when he wrote, "I worry that the tide has gone out on the E-word."

He confessed personal reluctance at times to "own up" that he is an evangelical. In addition, a British Evangelical Alliance/Premier Radio poll found, among those people surveyed who described themselves as evangelical, only 59 percent were willing to reveal their evangelical identity to others.

In America, there is no similar survey. But the American public's understanding of evangelicals on the whole has rarely been more misshapen. "The public perception is that we are mean and negative," commented "Mr. Southern Baptist" Jimmy Draper to the Boston Globe last year. The recently retired president of Lifeway Christian Resources was referring to the unsuccessful Southern Baptist boycott of Disney. But many evangelicals feel their movement has been tarred unfairly with the same "mean and negative" brush.

Several misperceptions are distorting the meaning of the word evangelical, including:

We are defined in the media by what we are against.
We are associated, in the public's mind, with extreme fundamentalism.
We are linked by evangelicalism's critics with the secular political agenda of the hard-right.

Our concern is not solely about public perception. As times have changed, evangelicals as a religious movement have also changed. We now have institutional resources and influential churches to a degree barely hoped for 50 years ago. Our people are better educated and more affluent. Our global networks are connecting believers like never before.

Misunderstanding exists among self-identified evangelicals who struggle to find the best terms to describe their identity. There are also Christians who affirm all the common points of evangelical belief and practice, but who avoid the label.

Let's agree that the word evangelical still works, but not like it did when the pioneers of the neo-evangelical movement adopted it. At that time, it signaled their positive stance for the gospel along with a fresh, non-fundamentalist agenda of cooperation and cultural engagement. If it works today, it must be as a set of ideals and commitments around which to rally rather than as a partisan label.

Because the evangelical movement has doctrinal, behavioral, devotional, and social dimensions, the E-word has always been difficult to define. It belongs as part of our living language of faith, expressing personal witness of biblical transformation, shared conviction about the person of Christ, sustained commitment to Christ's mission "to seek and save the lost," and the church's vital calling to care for all persons in need.

The news media's relentless focus on controversy makes it difficult to remedy false impressions. But there are steps that evangelicals could take. We should reiterate our genuine respect for people whose beliefs do not give them the kind of Christian hope we have. Second, we should speak with greater clarity and precision about our values and priorities. Third, we should place renewed emphasis on biblical knowledge, personal holiness, and compassionate concern.

It is far more important to keep this movement focused than to rehabilitate a label. We can dream of a day when every evangelical is biblically literate, evangelistic, and engaged in mission. That won't happen until we own the word evangelical with truer commitment and lasting passion to the core purpose of the saving gospel.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today's Weblog earlier commented on Buckeridge's Christianity editorial on "the e-word."

The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals has more on defining evangelicalism.

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