As the president of an institution with evangelical in its name, I’ve had many opportunities to reflect on the mixed legacy that comes with that word. If you don’t explain what you mean, others will fill in the meaning for you—and today, all too often, they will treat it as a synonym for “narrow-minded,” “fundamentalist,” “intolerant,” or even “hatemonger.” The hard truth is that those of us who have borne the label “evangelical” have not always put our best foot—or our best gospel—forward. We may have held to orthodoxy, but it has not necessarily been beautiful or full of grace.
What should we do? We could abandon the word altogether and leave it to its narrowest, most reactive partisans. Or we can reclaim it with fresh descriptions of what evangelical faith really can and does mean. To paraphrase Charles Dickens just a bit, we have a far, far better gospel and a far, far better Savior to offer this world than what they have heard from us at times. It is time to embrace the call to be boldly, broadly, and beautifully evangelical.
The word “evangelical” today most often refers to an expression of Western Christianity that has generated considerable attention and controversy since World War II. But there’s a larger context we should bear in mind. The social reformers of 19th century America count in many ways as evangelicals, as do the revivalists who preceded them in the 18th century. All of these have roots in what we today call the pietistic movement, one of the most powerful responses to—and dimensions of—the Enlightenment era in both Europe and America.
The pietists, very broadly ...1