My former classmate, Andrew Belli (now pastoral assistant at Redeemer Fellowship Church in Watertown, MA- near Boston) posted this on his twitter (@BelliAndrew): “Missions agencies define an ‘unreached people group’ as a population in which >2% are evangelicals. Greater Boston area? 1.9%” Less than 2% of the population being “evangelical” means that area is “unreached”. This is premised on two things:
1. The only people who have the gospel are evangelical.
2. The statistical data on evangelical demographics are accurate.
The first premise I won’t deal with now. It’s a a huge question, and all I will say is that God can work to bring redemption in a variety of contexts.
But here’s my question, who is an “evangelical”. The stats for Greater Boston indicate 1.9% are evangelical. Well that’s based on survey data- people who check off “evangelical” on a survey or census make up that 1.9% (Andrew didn’t post the source of that number). Well, evangelical is a funny term. Many people shy away from using it because of the reputation associated with it. Others use it, thinking they know what it means, but probably don’t fit into that box. Well, here’s what the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) website provides as a statement of faith:
The Holy Scriptures, as originally given by God, are divinely inspired, infallible, entirely trustworthy, and constitute the only supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.
There is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is God manifest in the flesh; we affirm his virgin birth, sinless humanity, divine miracles, vicarious and atoning death, bodily resurrection, ascension, ongoing mediatorial work, and personal return in power and glory.
The salvation of lost and sinful humanity is possible only through the merits of the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, received by faith apart from works, and is characterized by regeneration by the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit enables believers to live a holy life, to witness and work for the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Church, the body of Christ, consists of all true believers.
Ultimately God will judge the living and the dead, those who are saved unto the resurrection of life, those who are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
See more here: What is an Evangelical?
Suddenly, a lot more people would fall under the umbrella of evangelical, I think. It’s a problematic distinction in my mind, as folks we would dismiss as not evangelical fit this description quite nicely. In fact, I’ve met Eastern Orthodox Christians who fit this bill better than most Baptists I know. But these same Eastern Orthodox folks would probably decline the designation “evangelical”. The term has certain culturally influenced presuppositions, some good, some bad. The evangelicals in the US in particular have a reputation which conjures up strong feelings for many. Kinnaman & Lyons’ book, UnChristian (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007) gives some key insights into opinions of evangelicals among the “outsiders” as they are called in the book (49% of those interviewed had a negative opinion of evangelicals, only 3% having a “good impression”, the rest being “neutral” see pg. 25). With so many different denominations bunched together as “evangelical” there can be an unfair bias connected to the term.
We often look to a specific set of protestant denominations and call all those who are part of those congregations “evangelical” (The list of EFC denominations is here). Well, which denominations are in, and which are out? Some not officially using the title evangelical are, and some using it perhaps shouldn’t. Further complicating matters, are there individual folks in “mainline” or liturgical churches with an evangelical faith? Are there folks in a denomination designated “evangelical” who do not reflect these values? Yep. Of course. So designating an area “unreached” because of the lack of evangelicals is to cast judgment on the Christians in that area. What if an area has a huge majority of the population being Christians who refuse the title evangelical? We declare that the gospel is notably absent/scarce in the area, and by extension, proclaiming these folks not Christian.
Obviously the point of Andrew’s tweet is to suggest that Greater Boston needs to hear the gospel as much as any other parts of the world. We all need to be hearing it, both those in the Church and out. If I read him correctly, he is calling for renewed commitment to mission in his community. Kudos. Local mission is essential to church life. But do we evaluate the missional success of the church by those under the umbrella of evangelical? Do we focus our work where the evangelicals are in short supply?
I find the term misleading myself. I am part of a family of churches which is part of the EFC (Centre Street is part of the CBOQ), I went to an evangelical seminary, I attend monthly meetings of the Network of Evangelical Ministers (NEM) here in St. Thomas. But what does that mean? My doctrinal stances look like the ones outlined by the EFC. But if we get into things beyond that broad description, I get a bit uneasy when looking at some common (but not universal) things held by a large portion of the evangelical community. For example, the soul-winning attitude which puts a huge emphasis on “decisions” for Christ. We are called to make disciples, not converts. Yes, to be a disciple there is a moment of repentance required, but faith starts at conversion. The “win” is not the decision, but the follow through.
Sometimes words and designations cause more confusion than anything else. Factions are a problem, biblically. So do we need to do away with the term “evangelical” itself? Is it time to stop making distinctions like this one? I’m not sure really. I’m just thinking out loud at this point, asking questions, and prodding all people to really examine our faith, whatever it may be. Do we blindly follow a movement, or do we consciously follow the Saviour? If so, these distinctions become less important.