Have Conservative Protestants Abandoned the Label “Evangelical”


Saddleback Church

On Saturday, we directed your attention to Thomas Kidd’s post calling for the end of the term “evangelical” to describe Protestants who believe in the inspiration of the Bible, the centrality of conversion, and the need to share their faith with others.  Kidd thinks that the word “evangelical” in America “has become inextricably tied to Republican politics,” making it more of a political term than a religious one.

When my post went to Facebook, an evangelical pastor responded this way:

For most east coast pastors who have adopted a seeker approach the term has been avoided for two decades or more. It’s turned into a political term that works against our efforts to reach the unchurched.

This is one pastor’s opinion, but I think it may be correct.  Fifteen years ago, when I started attending an Evangelical Free church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, it was called “West Shore Evangelical Free Church.”  But today, if you go to the church website, you will notice that the church is now called “West Shore Free Church.”  What happened to the term “evangelical?”  Perhaps I missed the meeting when this was changed.  The church remains part of the Evangelical Free Church denomination, but it no longer uses the term “evangelical” to describe itself.

I got really curious about this, so we checked out the websites of some of the largest evangelical churches in the country using a list from Sermon Central.  The list includes Lakewood Church (Joel Osteen), Willow Creek Community Church (Bill Hybels), Saddleback Church (Rick Warren), The Potter’s House (T.D. Jakes), and Thomas Road Baptist Church (Jonathan Falwell).

After an extensive examination of the websites of the 40 largest churches on the Sermon Central list, we found two churches that used the term “evangelical” as a descriptive term.  Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, Illinois describes itself as an “evangelical fellowship.”  Saint Matthews Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American congregation in Williamstown, New Jersey, describes its doctrinal position as “historically that of conservative, evangelical Christianity.”  (It also describes itself as at the “forefront of the non-charismatic, dispensational, pre-millennial movement.”

This little study is far from perfect, but perhaps my pastor friend is correct.  It seems that most of the largest churches in the country, churches that scholars and the media would describe as “evangelical,” don’t use the term to identity themselves.

5 thoughts on “Have Conservative Protestants Abandoned the Label “Evangelical”

  1. It is interesting to note that, as I recall events, these churches at least, Willow Creek Community Church, Saddleback Church, and The Potter’s House, never used “evangelical” in their name.

    In short, it would be interesting to know how many have gone without the name “evangelical” for years.


  2. “Evangelical” has always been something of a problematic term, since no major denominations (except the non-evangelical ELCA) ever used the term in their titles. In exit poll and survey data, the question is usually worded, “Do you consider yourself a born-again or evangelical Protestant (or Christian).” The number of Americans who do remains quite large, but is shrinking notably among young adults.


  3. I doubt if “evangelical” was ever very widely used as a self-identification. In Christian Smith’s American Evangelicalism, Embattled and Thriving, 7% of Americans in the 1990’s picked “evangelical” as a self-identification if forced to choose among several possibilities. (Interestingly about the same number identified as “fundamentalist” and now that term is out of style.)


  4. I believe a bit of nuance needs to be added. Dr. Kidd reacted (as have others) to the misuse of the phrase “evangelical”. That is understandable however, not always wise.

    For over forty years many churches have omitted denominational affiliations from their name (e.g. Saddleback Church which is actually Southern Baptist). Others have no deoniminational affiliation yet are evanglical in theology (Willow Creek). Lakewood is non-denominational (and non-evangelical) and Potters House is United Church of Christ (and also non-evangelical as the denomination denies the theology of the Trinity).

    Dr. Kidd is understandably frustrated and I believe his comment was simply “venting” and not a declaration of independence.

    The pollsters (and people) probably have no clue as to the historical identify of “evangelical.” It is time to reclaim the identity, not disassociate from it.

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  5. The change in public use of evangelism will be especially hard on those of us baby boomers who were raised on Francis Schaeffer, the Keswick movement, Focus on the Family etc. Historical studies helped mitigate the extremes to which I was prone, but to lose an established self-identity term is painful.


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