Updated: Mar 3, 2020
When I first went to Venezuela as a missionary, our team struggled with how we should refer to ourselves. To called ourselves "Baptist" was meaningless. No one knew what a Baptist was and we weren't prepared to explain it and get diverted from what we really wanted to communicate—the Gospel. We couldn't call ourselves "evangelicals" because to the people we sought to reach an "evangelical" was a Jehovah's Witness and they were thoroughly despised. Recently the term "evangelical" has taken some hits in our own context here in North America. Some feel that the word has lost its meaning or at least been severely tarnished.
If the word and the people associated with it only denigrated because of the Gospel, that would actually be something to be proud of. But the politicalization of "evangelical" and those who claim the name has turned it into something some of us don't really want to be associated with as believers.
But it's a good word that, as the ancient adage goes, "took a wrong turn at Albuquerque". For those unfamiliar with the phrase, it means: "To take a wrong turn or miss a turn in a journey, so reaching a place distant from the original goal".
"Evangelical" comes from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον which means "good news" and refers to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If those who claim the name today had only stuck to the original goal as encapsulated in its meaning, some of us would be a great deal happier!
In Romans 1:1 Paul writes: "Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God". "Gospel" also refers to "good news". Paul was an evangelical, dedicated to sharing the good news of Jesus who, as Luke describes Him in Luke 19:10, came "to seek and to save the lost".
Paul's mission was to invite those separated from God because of their sin to be forgiven and restored to fellowship with their heavenly Father through faith in what Jesus did to pay the penalty for that sin. And then, as the next step in that transformation, Paul's task was to teach these new believers in Jesus how to live out that faith, what he describes in Romans 1:5 as calling "…all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith…".
That's what evangelicals are supposed to be all about.
Many of those who claim that name today have forgotten what God set them apart to do—to share the good news about Jesus. They have forgotten their calling. They have forgotten that no Prime Minister, President, or political party has the ability to change anyone in the only way that it really matters. True change, lasting change, eternal change, change on a national and international scale only comes through an encounter with Jesus.
Which makes it all the more important for evangelicals to be what their name has always called them to be—those dedicated to Gospel, to good news, to the story of Jesus and His journey down to us to make the only difference that counts.