What is an Evangelical? Mini-Essay I
My brother, a music minister in California, asked me this question after he read an earlier mini-essay I wrote on American Evangelicalism. "What, Bill, is an Evangelical?" he wanted to know. Of course I was ready with historical and theological answers: an evangelical is someone shaped by the tradition emerging out of the St. Louis meeting in 1942, refracted through the parachurch organizations in the 1960s and 1970s and exemplified in many of the conservative churches in mainline denominations as well as more conservative Protestant denominations today.
Not good enough. Try again. An Evangelical is one who is committed to certain basic doctrinal positions: the inerrancy or the infallibility of Scripture (liberal Evangelicals, if there is such a breed, would fall back on "authority" of Scriptures, but that sounds too much like subjectivist mumbo jumbo), the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ for sinners (that is, people are unable to save themselves, and Christ is the one provided by God to effect redemption), the coming of Christ in glory (soon, but don't ask an Evangelical what "soon" means) and the necessity of proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel to all people.
Not good enough. Doctrinal and historical definitions, though possibly correct, really do not get us to the heart of what an Evangelical is. As I thought longer on the problem, I began to see that a true Evangelical is one who has a unique view of space and time, a view if taken to its logical conclusion, must create extreme dissonance in the Evangelical's mind. The unique view of space is that God is always RIGHT THERE next to me; the unique view of time is that EVERY MOMENT is potentially filled with all the fulness of God.
First, the Evangelical concept of space. The Evangelical believes that God is not only the high and lofty creator inhabiting the heavenly realms, wherever they are, but is also closer to us than our own breath, more present to us than our most intimate thoughts, more concerned about our present and future than we are ourselves. God is not simply PRESENT in this way for the Evangelical but is actively WORKING FOR the benefit of the Evangelical. Confusing situations, apparent setbacks, even outright defeats are messages from God pointing to something else, which itself may not be clear.
Because God is RIGHT THERE, some Evangelicals may believe in things such as praying for parking places, praying before meals even in public settings, using "God language" with regularity and sincerity in many of their conversations and speaking of God as if God is constantly communicating with him or her. The Evangelical has learned dozens of Scripture verses that reinforce the "RIGHT THEREness" of God; these verses are part of the "armor of God" with which she clothes herself to do battle with the world, the flesh and the devil. God is always RIGHT THERE.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long