What is an evangelical Christian?

What do evangelicals believe?

What is an evangelical Christian? And what on earth is an evangelist?

John Bunyan (1628-1688), author of the evangelical masterpiece Pilgrim's ProgressAlthough evangelical Christians are constantly in the news in the United States, and have been featured in best-selling books for centuries, such as The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (pictured), researchers have found that most Americans don't know what an “evangelical Christian” is.

A survey by Ellison Research in 2008 found that 36 per cent of those surveyed had no idea what the word evangelical means.

Just over half of those polled offered some kind of definition, but most were wrong.

Ron Sellers from Ellison Research said, “We had only 56 per cent of all Americans who could even give any kind of a substantive answer as to what an evangelical was.”

And many of those answers were so far off-base that they were laughable, such as “They worship angels,” or “They worship the Torah.”

“But 44 per cent of all Americans couldn't even hazard any kind of realistic guess as to what it is,” Sellers said.

So, what is an evangelical Christian?

The National Association of Evangelicals defines an evangelical Christian as someone:

To evangelize means you explain your beliefs to others with the view that they might want to adopt your beliefs. An evangelist is someone who preaches the Gospel to try to get people saved and on their way to Heaven. The English words come from Greek words that mean to announce good news, bring a good message, or preach the Gospel.

What are evangelical churches?

A Princeton University study listed the following denominations as being evangelical:

Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists, Independent Baptists, black Protestants, African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Church of Christ, Churches of God in Christ, Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, National Baptist Church, National Progressive Baptist Church, Nondenominational, Pentecostal denominations, and the Presbyterian Church in America.

Evangelical church Hillsong in Sydney, Australia

A number of other churches, large and small, are also regarded as evangelical. These range from small, local, conservative churches with few members, to “mega churches” like Australia's Hillsong church (pictured above), which attract tens of thousands to their services, including a large number of young people who identify with Hillsong's highly popular music.

A common feature of truly evangelical churches is that they and their members hold conservative views on social issues. They oppose abortion because it kills a developing child, they oppose homosexuality because the Bible speaks against it, and they generally reject evolution in favor of creation by God as outlined in the book of Genesis, or intelligent design.

They are pro-family, pro-life, supportive of missionaries, and try to follow the Bible as their guidebook to life.


Until the 1940s, many evangelical Christians were happy to be known as “fundamentalists”. This term initially referred to no more than identifying Christians who accepted the fundamentals, or basics, of the Christian faith.

Fundamentalist beliefs were documented in a series of 12 pamphlets issued by the American Bible League between 1910 and 1915. The pamphlets were called The Fundamentals: A testimony to the truth.

In 1910, the northern Presbyterian Church proposed five fundamentals (essential beliefs) that a Christian could be expected to believe.

These were:

  1. The inerrancy of Scripture
  2. Christ's Virgin Birth
  3. The substitutionary Atonement of Christ
  4. Christ's bodily Resurrection
  5. The historicity of Christ's miracles.

Some variations on these five were proposed by others, with some substituting the deity of Christ for the Virgin Birth, and Christ's Second Coming replacing His miracles. But most fundamentalists would happily expand the list of basic beliefs rather than substitute any.

“Fundamentalist” misapplied to Muslim extremists

From the 1940s, some fundamentalists started calling themselves “evangelical Christians”.

Originally, being labelled a fundamentalist was something that conservative Christians were proud of. But as time passed, the word fundamentalist began to take on a negative meaning.

Partly this was because of the secular media, who tend to be somewhat ignorant of evangelical Christianity. The media started labelling Muslim extremists and terrorists as “fundamentalists”, even though Muslims themselves have said there is no concept of the word in Islam.

Today, conservative Christians find that if they say they are fundamentalists, non-Christians start thinking they have links with terrorists, so most have found it easier to call themselves “evangelical Christians” to avoid misunderstanding. The beliefs haven't changed, just the terminology in an attempt to avoid confusion.

But the problem has come full circle, because as we said at the start of this article, most people don't know what an evangelical Christian is anyway. We trust this article has provided at least a basic explanation.

Photo credit: Photo of Hillsong church is copyright Matt Malone. Used with permission.

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