These past few weeks, I have been reading a book by Frances Fitzgerald entitled The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. Fitzgerald explores the history of the American evangelical movement (and the huge diversity that almost makes it difficult to call it a “movement”), noting several important themes that link the various groups involved. “Evangelical” is not synonymous with “fundamentalist;” fundamentalists are one group in a wide spread, grouped together mainly by understanding the Bible to be authoritative, that God has been active in human history, but particularly through Christ’s saving actions, and the importance of a transformed life and evangelism. Pretty broad strokes! In fact, Fitzgerald reports that some historians believe that the overarching category of “Evangelicals” was created more so by journalists and charismatic political leaders than by those belonging to the groups themselves.
Fitzgerald begins with a history of the American religious movements in the early Great Awakenings. These awakenings tended to impact oppressed peoples, and as such, these early groups tended to have emphases on social justice issues. The leaders of the Second Great Awakening were early abolitionists, argued for racial equality (in the early 1800s!) in schools, and one seminary became a stop on the Underground Railroad.
As the movement has grown, it has developed new branches into the wide variety it is today, with fundamentalists often claiming the loudest voice. While this has been a fascinating history, I am reminded of our own, different understanding of “evangelical.”
The word “evangelical” comes from a Greek word that means “I tell the good news.” That’s it! We put a lot of emphasis on the good news, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and so we share that good news with the world. This word is our word too. We are called to share this good news in stories and in actions, to proclaim the hope that we have been given. Not as a means to our own salvation, but out of a response to that salvation. It moves us. It transforms us. Our spiritual ancestors have been modeling for us how to tell our stories for generations: just tell it. Tell it in whatever way we have to, whether that is narrative, poetry, dialogue, living out the story. We are evangelical in nature. Let us share the stories together.